Fast-food chain Chipotle has been caught up in not one, but two, social media storms over the past fortnight, following its decision to fire a front-of-house manager over what proved to be groundless accusations of racial profiling.
According to Buzzfeed,  On 16 November, manager Dominique Moran was phone-filmed at her St Paul, Minnesota branch by customer Masud Ali saying that she would not serve him and his group – all African-Americans – unless they could prove their ability to pay. Ali promptly tweeted the clip,  spurring thousands of retweets and a stream of negative comments against Chipotle, accusing Moran and the brand of racism.
In a statement to the Minnesota Star Tribune,  Chipotle confirmed that, in discussions with Moran, it had established that she had identified Ali and his companions as a group that, just a few days before, had left the branch without paying: a practice act known in US parlance as ‘dine and dash’.
The chain said: “Regarding what happened at the St Paul restaurant, the manager thought these gentlemen were the same customers from Tuesday night who weren’t able to pay for their meal. Regardless, this is not how we treat our customers and, as a result, the manager has been terminated and the restaurant [staff] has been retrained to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again.”
However, some of Twitter’s more eagle-eyed users quickly spotted that Ali had, in fact, issued a series of previous tweets in which he’d boasted of stealing food and condiments from restaurants. Cue a brand-new social-media storm, as Chipotle was then accused of wrongful dismissal. Moran, meanwhile, had become a local cause celebre, with friends setting up a GoFundMe page to cover her lost earnings and potential legal fees. 
The outpouring of support for Moran and the coverage of Ali’s boastful tweets have prompted Chipotle to reinstate her  – although Moran says that she needs time to decide whether or not to return.
As a whole, this episode highlights the difficulties involved with reinstating sacked employees in the wake of embarrassing misunderstandings. How can leaders best pave the way for amicable reinstatements that overcome the circumstances around the dismissal?
Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “In this situation, what’s happened is that there’s been a breakdown of trust, and that trust needs to be fixed. The trigger for the breakdown was that the employee was not believed, and action was taken without a proper investigation. The punitive measure the employer chose to take was subsequently shown to be a knee-jerk reaction, and therefore misplaced. So, in light of those factors, offering the employee the chance to resume her job signals a genuine intention to fix things and put them right.”
Cooper notes: “Trust is so easily broken, yet not very easily rebuilt. But it can be rebuilt, with the application of effort and good will. One starting point for any situation such as this would be to have an absolutely honest, initial conversation – one that would include not just a heartfelt apology, but evidence that the scenario will not be repeated. That way, the person who has been wronged will at least be able to go forward with the sense that something good has come out of the discomfiting episode – and that, in future, such circumstances will be thoroughly investigated as a matter of company policy.”
She adds: “It is also important to ask the wronged person, ‘What can we do to ensure that you will trust us again?’ So, all told, it will be a difficult conversation – one that may have several stages and take time to reach its logical conclusion, but with an open and positive approach from both sides can eventually be resolved. It takes a real willingness on the employer’s part to accept the error of judgment, apologise and do things differently in the future.”
For further thoughts on building trust, check out these learning resources from the Institute