Applebee’s Taking Heat on Social Media for Firing Waitress

Yet another company that believes they’re operating in 1974.

You can read the full back story here, Applebee's receipt that got waitress fired.but briefly:  A couple days ago, an Applebee’s waitress posted an image of a receipt (see: right) on the social network, Reddit.  The receipt had a note from a customer complaining about auto-tip and how she “gives God 10%,” so “why do you [the waitress] get 18%?”

After word hit the streets about the receipt, the customer (who turned out to be a pastor) called Applebee’s and demanded the waitress be fired for violations of guest privacy due to the signature on the receipt.  The waitress was promptly fired.

The character of the customer, merits of firing the employee, and logic behind tipping in our culture are all worthwhile topics, but this is a digital marketing blog, so let’s take a look at the backlash Applebee’s is receiving on social media.

The Backlash on Facebook and Rapid Sharing on Twitter

Within a couple hours of this story developing, the Applebee’s Facebook page saw a constant barrage of critical comments about the decision to fire the waitress.

Applebee's Facebook - Waitress Fired

Negative comments flood Applebee’s Facebook page after news of waitress being fired.

A small screenshot of Twitter gives an indication of how quickly the story has been spreading.

Negative comments flood Applebee's Facebook page after news of waitress being fired.

How Did Applebee’s Handle the PR Situation?

Like a lot of companies who just don’t seem to “get” the power of social media and find themselves in these situations, Applebee’s disabled the Facebook page feature that allows others to write on their page’s Timeline.

Then, they issued the following statement on Facebook which received some 4,000 comments within an hour (you can read the comments here).

Social media outcries over Applebee's waitress being fired.

Applebee’s statement in response to social media outcries over waitress being fired.

This Is the World in Which Businesses Now Operate

To put everything in perspective, I have to go back to a classic quote from Jay Baer of The Now Revolution:

The future of business is not in measured, scrutinized responses or carefully planned initiatives.  Business will soon be about near-instantaneous response; about making the best decisions you can with the extremely limited information you have; about every customer being a reporter, and every reporter being a customer; about winning and losing customers in real time, every second of every day; and about a monumental increase in the availability of commentary about our companies.  Business will be always on, always changing, always moving.

 This perfectly hammers home what Applebee’s and every other business is currently facing due to the Internet and social media.  Look, ten years ago this likely would have been a non-story except for those in the local area where the events occurred.

A relatively small number of people would have heard the story and an even smaller number of people would have had an avenue to voice their displeasure toward Applebee’s publicly.

But this isn’t ten years ago, it’s 2013.

Every consumer now has a megaphone in their pocket and the ability to push a message to hundreds or thousands of people in a matter of seconds.

Word-of-mouth marketing has never been more important than it is at this moment.  In a world where “every customer is a reporter,” businesses must consider the implications of their actions and how they will play out online, especially in the social media sphere.  There is far too much to be lost with even the slightest perceived misstep.

What Will the Fallout Be for Applebee’s?

Whether Applebee’s had a right or responsibility to fire the waitress according to their Employee Code of Conduct is largely irrelevant to this discussion.  In the business of marketing and PR, it’s been said a billion times: perception is reality.

Judging from the comments being left on fallout-applebeesFacebook and Twitter, the overwhelming majority of people believe Applebee’s made the wrong move by firing the waitress.  That is, the perception among many consumers is Applebee’s wrongfully terminated an employee at the request of a customer who was embarrassed by her hypocrisy and rudeness being made public.

Whether this perception is objectively right or wrong doesn’t matter, because, if these people hold true to their comments, they’ve marked Applebee’s off their list of “Restaurants I Will Spend My Money At.”

An event that would have been mostly a non-story a decade ago is now a threatening PR disaster.  Present-day marketing, especially in the area of PR, is hardly about dissecting situations and creating the perfect message to release publicly.  Instead, marketing today is about generating such positive sentiments among consumers that they’re compelled to create that perfect message for you and share it publicly.

 

Do you know someone who works in PR?  Share this post with them.  Do you think Applebee’s made the right decision and handled this situation well?

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Comments

  1. Great article!

  2. Excellent insight

  3. I think Appleby’s was within its rights, they just didn’t express it properly. Shame on the Pastor, certainly, but shame on the waitress, too. The moment she posted that receipt, she stopped being a waitress and became the head of PR. As a former waiter, nothing would anger me more than cheap customers, but they have a right to privacy. There’s also a due process missing. Maybe that waitress was awful or rude or slow. We only get the waitresses side. In this case, it seems that the waitress deserved a tip, but as I mentioned, I used to be a waiter and I always hated the automatic gratuity. It felt Busch League. Ultimately, my point is that she has to be moron to think this wax acceptable, so she’s either that dumb and should have been fired or she was aware of the ramifications and should be fired for being so calculating.

    • Thanks for your comment, Gene.

      The only problem I have with the “right to privacy” justification is Applebee’s has posted guests’ signatures (likely without expressed consent) more than once in the past on their Facebook page (example: http://on.fb.me/XYr6n2).

      If the act of releasing an image of a customer’s signature is a violation of their right to privacy, then that rule must be upheld even in cases where the image depicted is showing a positive sentiment toward Applebee’s. The fact that this principle evidently isn’t consistently upheld brings into question the justification for firing the employee. At the end of the day, this amounts to little more than an inconsistent (social media) policy, and that’s the fault of corporate rather than an employee.

      I don’t think much of this has to do with the tip at all. The waitress didn’t seem to care about the lack of an additional tip (the auto-tip is of course automatically triggered in cases of larger parties and is completely out of her hands). As she’s stated in interviews, she was just a bit taken aback by the smug justification for not tipping and thought it was an interesting, humorous thing worth sharing with others.

      I can’t exactly blame her. This isn’t 1974, it’s 2013 and that’s something companies must recognize. People share funny, interesting things online and this is hardly an issue of privacy — the only reason this became an issue is the pastor was embarrassed that her hypocrisy and stupidity was seen by more than a few people.

      • Just to play Devil’s advocate, just because young people don’t have filter to prevent them from spreading the most mundane of thoughts, doesn’t justify the action. As a customer who pays a business, a person had a reasonable expectation that he or she will not be mocked for giving that company business. If the waitress thought it funny, she could have shared the info without the receipt. What business owner would be happy knowing that his or her paying customers stood a chance of public humiliation at the hands of employees who couldn’t resist the urge to share a laugh because it’s 2013, not 1974? That’s just permissive thinking and a cop out. The only reason we find it ok is that the pastor was ridiculous. I agree it’s funny, but it is not the place of any employee to publicly humiliate an owner’s customers. There’s no spin to make it acceptable.

        • If the stated reason for the employee’s termination was “mocking a customer” or something similar, I’m with you. However, she was fired, in Applebee’s words, for violating a guest’s right to privacy due to the signature on the receipt.

          This is poor justification for firing the employee, for the simple reason that Applebee’s has proudly shown customers’ names and signatures on receipts and checks in the past on Facebook and Twitter. They can’t have their cake and eat it too: either showing guests’ names on receipts/checks is a violation of their privacy or it isn’t.

          But we all know if this Applebee’s receipt was an image including $100 tip with a “Thank you so much for your great service!” note, the thought of firing the employee would have never crossed their minds.

          It’s nothing more than inconsistent management and poor policy to blame — and that’s the fault of the franchise as a whole. They’ve learned the hard way, unfortunately, along with many other big brands the past couple years.

          • I agree Jonathan. The reason they gave wad stupid. They certainly should have articulated it better. Personally, I don’t think they should be posting anyone’s receipt, good or bad. It’s just bad practice. Appleby’s sucks anyway. I don’t know anything about them corporately, but I know I always thought their food was no better than Denny’s.

  4. Good and Bad PR spreads like wildfire now. Great article Jonathan. You’re always on the top of your game.

  5. I was disappointed that Applebee’s didn’t also back up the waitress and the rest of their staff by saying that customers should tip. Some sort of acknowledgement would have been good, I think.

    But then I read that Applebee’s (the brand) has posted receipts on social media channels when customers wrote on the back of a check saying good things, and with the customer’s name included. Seems like Applebee’s needs to clean up its social media policy. Why is OK to share one time and not OK another time?

    Bad, bad all around.

    • Agreed. Having posted customers’ signatures on Facebook in the past really takes out their justification for firing her. Like I’ve been saying, this is a case of inconsistent management and outdated policies more than anything in my opinion. Thanks for reading/sharing, Dan.

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