Anger Directed at Applebee's Is More Likely to Hurt Than Help Workers

They're being targeted because an incident went especially viral, not because they behaved especially badly. And that creates bad incentives.

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Admit it. The Web campaign against Applebee's is getting gratuitous. It all began when a St. Louis pastor who dined there got upset at the tip added to her bill. "I give God 10 percent," she wrote on her receipt. "Why do you get 18 percent?" Waitresses were understandably offended and amused, and one uploaded a photo of the receipt to the Internet, where it went viral, causing the customer to be harassed after Internet sleuths deciphered her signature and identity.

Like a lot of people, I find the customer's behavior objectionable, and I'm sympathetic to the waitress who was fired for uploading the receipt. Even granting the restaurant chain's legitimate interest in protecting customer privacy, a sanction short of termination would've sufficed.

On the other hand, reading about the tens of thousands of anti-Applebee's Facebook comments, the disdainful mockery of its social media response, and the many people insisting that they now intend to boycott the restaurant, I can't help but marvel at the angry digital mob. I've already written that I wish the waitress would be rehired. I hope she quickly finds an even better job.

But there are roughly 2,000 Applebee's locations in the United States. The company employs approximately 28,000 people. As a general matter, do those employees fare better or worse than workers at comparable companies? The vast majority of people raging against it have no clue. For all they know, Applebee's generally treats its workers with admirable fairness and respect; they're nevertheless directing maximal, knee-jerk outrage against the national chain for one termination -- not a pattern of sexual harassment, or tip skimming by management, or unsafe working conditions, or damaging environmental pollution, but a judgment call about a single employee.

Isn't it a bit much to threaten the same response we had to apartheid? 

The Internet often brings people together to do good. The Web helped stop SOPA. It brought us the "It Gets Better" campaign. People have come together for all sorts of worthy charitable causes. And there are all sorts of online challenges to corporate behavior that I would celebrate.  

But the anti-Applebee's rage is arbitrary and out of all proportion to the events that transpired, and that's problematic for reasons that transcend unfairness to Applebee's, a chain that could disappear tomorrow without me minding. The extraordinary anger being generated has more to do with the incident's viralness than the magnitude of the company's bad behavior. As a result, corporations across America aren't thinking, "We'd better avoid perpetrating really bad behavior," they're thinking, "We'd better avoid any situation that involves our company getting viral publicity." 

It isn't difficult to see where that leads.

Companies will increasingly fear unpredictable digital mobs, and they'll respond by putting increasingly draconian restrictions on the ability of their employees to use social media. The "creative class" will mostly retain their ability to send Tweets, post to Instagram, and update Facebook. But folks who occupy lower rungs of the employment ladder and wield proportionately less influence will be forced to abide by rule books that err on the side of stifling employee freedom of expression to minimize the potential risk of any public relations nightmares.

Last week, when I wrote about the Applebee's incident, I hoped it would be remembered as a moment that caused badly behaved customers to think twice before gratuitously mistreating staff. But if an anti-Applebee's backlash does any real damage to the chain, the incident will instead be remembered as a moment when corporations started to take even more extreme measures to preemptively stifle the freedom of expression that employees enjoy in their off hours.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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