Bonia has come forth to address and clear any misconceptions about the company having a monoethnic workplace after a TikTok video began circulating online. "Diversity in a workplace is important not only for personal career development but integral for us as a progressive lifestyle brand. We are, and have always been, a company that prides itself on nurturing inclusive work culture," the brand explained.

While the TikTok video has since been deleted, clips and screenshots are still going around on Twitter and show the user detailing her experience during her first month of employment with Bonia. This included unlimited snacks, free ice cream from Inside Scoop, free lunch once a month, field trips, having Labour Day and Mother's Day gifts, and having a comfortable workspace. While the video had meant to chronicle the perks at Bonia, it mainly featured individuals of Chinese ethnicity, hence giving the impression that Bonia was not racially diverse.

Bonia explained that it is proud to have talents from various backgrounds, from its board of directors to its managerial and office staff as well as frontliners. "The video portrays only a part of our company and does not reflect us in its entirety," Bonia said. The brand added that it is "actively nurturing diversity from its internal policies and protocols to its training for employees.

Netizens, however, were unconvinced and called for the boycott of Bonia products. Some also called for proof that Bonia hired individuals of other races. Meanwhile, one netizen commented that this was a harmless TikTok that turned into a PR nightmare while another said this is a good example of why employees should not share anything about their workplace on social media, especially if they aren't the official spokesperson.

Without a doubt, diversity is a topic of growing concern among companies. Not only do consumers want to see more diverse ads but are also interested in joining companies with a diverse workforce. In 2020, LinkedIn said it recorded year-on-year growth of senior leaders taking the lead and initiating conversations about diversity.

According to LinkedIn's study titled "The Future of Recruiting - Asia Pacific", 74% of Asia Pacific talent professionals said diversity will be very important to the future of recruiting, and 54% of Asia Pacific talent professionals say hiring managers are held accountable for interviewing diverse slate of candidates.

In fact, LinkedIn said that diversity is no longer a compliance measure or a tick-box exercise but an integral part of any organisation’s talent plan. It also witnessed a rise in the number of diversity, inclusion and belonging positions across Asia Pacific. This was attributed to companies attempting to cultivate a culture of belonging where its people are empowered to express ideas and innovate.

Meanwhile, Lars Voedisch, principal consultant and MD of PRecious Communications, told A+M that this is "another sad example" of cancel culture having gone too far. "One piece of content, taken out of context, getting elevated to an example of allegedly unacceptable behaviour," he said. According to Voedisch, a knee-jerk reaction by Bonia would be to blatantly ban employees from any posts or mentions of their workplace or colleagues, if that was even possible at all. 

Nonetheless, brands should be clear and more proactive in their communications about their take on diversity, equity and inclusion so that any allegations or rumours could immediately and transparently get rebuked, Voedisch said.

With regards to the statement, Voedisch was of the view that it creates a rather defensive perception. "Generally, we would advise clients to start by expressing empathy and thanking the community for their interest in the matter brought up. If you just publish a statement that reads like a legal document it feels very cold and creates a distance instead of having a possible uniting effect," he explained.

Can brands prevent a personal social media post from becoming a PR issue?

Employees are often touted as the company's brand ambassadors and one of the most authentic ways to showcase employer branding, according to LinkedIn, is to empower staff to be the company's own ambassadors. It is also common for individuals to share their lives on social media these days, including their experiences in the workplace. While there was no ill intent behind this latest video, it has now become a PR issue for Bonia.

Sunita Kanapathy, head of PR and influence at Ogilvy Malaysia, told A+M that most individuals on social media have professional and personal lives and it is not easy to draw a line between both. "When a personal post references your professional life, should you follow the confines of your employer's social media rules or anything goes? All public figures are held to a higher standard and this is increasingly true for all employees as well, simply because they all are company ambassadors," she explained.

Hence, users should always err on the side of caution to ensure anything they post cannot be attributed to their company values. In the case of this video, Kanapathy said it is hard to ascertain if the backlash is valid but the video is "pretty damning in its depiction". According to her, Bonia needs to be more transparent in its response to properly satisfy people's questions and quell any reprisal. "It should do more to demonstrate its diversity in talent and recruitment at all levels within the company versus just saying so in a statement," she said. 

On the other hand, if an employee intentionally wants to show the "negative" side of a company, social media would be the perfect platform to be a whistleblower, Kanapathy said. 

As people's actions can positively or adversely affect a brand, companies should invest in guiding their people on all social norms. This includes how social media can be used as a constructive tool especially when directly referencing your employer and its brand.

Similarly, Ashvin Anamalai, chief strategist at Be Strategic, said social media is a window to a person's life and an extension to their personality. There is no stopping the use of social media by individuals to document anything, whether negative, positive, or in this case, absolutely neutral.

"As for where individuals draw the line, responsibility is key; social sharing and the workplace have a history of blurred lines and issues, so it is important to share posts to those who can do good, not harm, with the added knowledge it provides," he said.

Crises happen out of nowhere, and often, it creates a long-term impact on the company’s business, personnel, and image. However, Anamalai believes it is certainly preventable, adding that communication is the foundation for any successful brand, and it all starts internally.

"Brands must keep all team members aligned and focused on achieving a singular, overarching goal. After communicating, you have to be a good listener. The usage of social media listening tools can go a long way. Brands can monitor sentiments and avert a social media disaster by reading about emerging issues even before it becomes a crisis," he explained.

Most importantly, brands should learn from their audience. Communication breakdown occurs when the values of brands and consumers do not align. Hence, understanding the implications of a brand's actions and swiftly responding will greatly benefit brands in the long term, Anamalai added.

"One of the primary reasons many companies try to build a diverse workplace is to broaden the scope and quality of ideas generated. We live in a growingly globalised audience, and a profound understanding of different cultures is among the growing expectations in this current landscape. It is important to be close to the audience and to listen to opinions; we may not be able to change the mindset of others, but we can certainly adapt," he explained.

Related articles:
LinkedIn: Empathy and diversity to form the crux of employer branding when hiring in 2021
Stop thinking of your supplier diversity programmes as just another PR exercise
4 ways diversity can be more than a tokenistic box-ticking exercise

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