Worried about safeguarding your brand’s reputation?

Teach your employees the Saks Fifth Avenue rule

More than a half million people walk past the windows of the storied Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City on a typical day during the holiday season. Now imagine that you and your employees do business in one of these showcases where passersby not only stop, but also stare. Every day we’re reminded, “If you see something, say something,” which applies to more than possible criminal activities.

Today, everything a business does is subject to scrutiny and second-guessing based on what people see and hear — or think they’ve seen and heard. One slip of the lip, one inappropriate or misinterpreted action, and the reactions can cascade to numbers that were heretofore unimaginable. Organizations must train employees to behave as if they’re performing their duties in a New York City Fifth Avenue window display.

Most companies have stringent rules about how employees are to conduct themselves in public, interact with customers and treat co-workers. As an example, a pilot can never be seen in uniform pounding down shots in a bar, even if the liquid refreshment is actually water and not the hard stuff. Why? Because perception is reality. When explaining the practical side of any policy, the use of imagery of this type can provide the requisite wake-up call. Even if a fleeting impression is taken out of context, it can ignite draconian consequences for the company and the employee.

It is no longer adequate to lay down rules of conduct and expect them to be followed. Instead, regulations must include the rationale for their existence and the ramifications of today’s inversion of one of the underpinnings of the Fifth and 14th amendments for due process, which has mutated from a practical perspective to guilty until proven innocent.

Regardless of their position, employees must be taught that the surreptitious use of myriad electronic devices could be memorializing their every word, gesture or movement. The frequently revived TV show “Candid Camera,” which captured people doing the darnedest things, has become our 24/7 real lives.

The double-entendre advertising slogan, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” no longer applies. Actions can instantly be communicated via the media or the internet to a few people around town or to tens of millions across the world. Whether this is fair or not has been rendered irrelevant by social media. It must be recognized that it is what it is, and companies have no choice but to play by these new realities. On the brighter side, this new awareness will make for a better work environment where respect for others and a semblance of dignity prevail.

The Saks Fifth Avenue rule serves as a reminder that although most employees try to do the right thing, even the best can occasionally and unintentionally slip. In effect, accepting the fact that we’re all on stage provides a sober and perennial reminder that every employee represents the brand, and there is no expiration date or statute of limitations on even the most unintentional and innocent transgressions.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax and in 16-years, as CEO, grew the retailer to sales of $5 billion in 1,000 stores worldwide.