Virgin Trains recently “apologised unreservedly” for a tweet which some social media users described as sexist.
When responding to a complaint from passenger Emily Lucinda Cole about being referred to as ‘honey’ by a member of staff, the official Virgin Trains East Coast Twitter account asked if she would “prefer ‘pet’ or ‘love’ next time”.
Ms Cole was travelling on a busy train from Edinburgh, where she had been visiting friends and family for Hogmanay, to her home in London. Following some confusion about seating arrangements, she wished to complain.
Speaking to the BBC, Ms Cole said: “The first person to check my ticket was very abrasive. His response to my explaining the situation, politely and honestly, and that I wanted to complain, was ‘you go ahead honey’.
“In the context and given his aggressive tone I can only assume he didn’t like being challenged by a woman.”
At that point Ms Cole tweeted Virgin Trains East Coast, and received the “patronising and belittling” response.
This caused debate over social media, with Virgin Trains heavily criticised for being sexist. They then subsequently deleted their original tweet.
A spokesperson for Virgin Trains on the east coast route said: “We apologise unreservedly for this tweet and for the offence caused. To avoid causing more offence we have deleted the original post.”
While the tweet could certainly be seen as condescending, from an HR point of view it is also potentially discriminatory.
Some companies like to show their human side through jokey responses to customer queries. However, in this case (especially with the staff member’s comment being considered offensive by the customer) Virgin should have acted appropriately and responded in a more serious manner, such as offering to investigate.
A company as large as Virgin Trains will respond to hundreds of queries a day, so it’s almost inevitable that sometimes customers won’t be satisfied with the service they receive. However, businesses can work towards preventing Twitter storms such as this.
Putting social media policies in place can make it clear to employees what is and isn’t appropriate language and behaviour when responding to people online. The policy could be included in a wider disciplinary and grievance policy, and should be readily available in the employee handbook.
The wider problem of discrimination should also be addressed under an equal opportunities policy. Employee training can also help communicate the correct action to take in order to prevent complaints such as this one happening in the first place.