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Blogging and Your Employer

I thought that this article on USA TODAY was interesting, but not earth shattering.

"Like a growing number of employees, Peter Whitney decided to launch a blog on the Internet to chronicle his life, his friends and his job at a division of Wells Fargo.

Then he began taking jabs at a few people he worked with.

His blog, gravityspike.blogspot.com, did find an audience: his bosses. In August 2004, the 27-year-old was fired from his job handling mail and the front desk, he says, after managers learned of his Web log, or blog.

His story is more than a cautionary tale. Delta Air Lines, Google and other major companies are firing and disciplining employees for what they say about work on their blogs, which are personal sites that often contain a mix of frank commentary, freewheeling opinions and journaling.

And it's hardly just an issue for employees: Some major employers such as IBM are now passing first-of-their-kind employee blogging guidelines designed to prevent problems, such as the online publishing of trade secrets, without stifling the kinds of blogs that can also create valuable buzz about a company.

"Right now, it's too gray. There needs to be clearer guidelines," says Whitney, who has found another job. "Some people go to a bar and complain about workers, I decided to do it online. Some people say I deserve what happened, but it was really harsh. It was unfair."

Wells Fargo declined to comment, but a spokeswoman said in an e-mail that the company doesn't have a blogging policy."


I have intentionally been very careful not to reveal any specific details about my employer and or job because I just don't want to have to deal with this. I find much of this to be truly distasteful.

By much of this I mean that to include internet and email policies as well as blogging. It is the impingement on my ability to express myself that irks me, but at the same time I recognize that due to liability issues few companies if any will allow an anything goes environment.

But during these early days there is a real problem in not having clearly established policy.

"Employers are just beginning to wake up to the potential risks that blogs pose.

"The law is trying to catch up with the technology," says Allison Hift, a telecommunications and technology lawyer in Miami. "This is like what we saw a few years ago with employers passing polices about e-mail. Now we're seeing it with Web logs."

The concerns are myriad. Employees who create blogs set up a direct way to communicate about their company with the public, because customers and clients can stumble across a blog. (Blogs often jump to the top of search engines because they are updated often.) Bloggers may spill trademark or copyright material on their sites, they may post pictures of yet-to-be-released products, and they may libel or slander another employee or a client.

A blogger can even get the ear of Congress. Douglas Roberts, a computer scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., started a blog (lanl-the-real-story.blogspot.com), and anonymous posters blasted management as incompetent. During a House subcommittee hearing in May, the blog was mentioned in a discussion about the fate of the nuclear research facility.

"I was quite surprised. I had no idea it would be this popular," Roberts says, adding that lab management has been supportive of his blog and that he believes blog policies in general are unnecessary.

Says lab spokesman Kevin Roark: "Open, honest, constructive discussion of issues is a good thing ... (but) the personal attacks were unnecessary and disappointing."

A number of employment lawyers, such as Hift, and bloggers, such as Whitney, are urging companies to enact guidelines and communicate blogging rules to employees. Some companies are doing just that: In May, IBM unveiled blogging guidelines for its 329,000 employees. The guidelines state that employees should identify themselves (and, when relevant, their roles at IBM) when blogging about IBM.

"You must make it clear that you are speaking for yourself and not on behalf of IBM," the guidelines state. They also say bloggers should not use "ethnic slurs, personal insults, obscenity, etc." and that they should "show proper consideration" for "topics that may be considered objectionable or inflammatory — such as politics and religion."

Others such as Microsoft have no formal guidelines specifically on blogging, but do encourage blogging as a way for employees to reach out to customers and clients. Says Jeff Sandquist, a group manager at Microsoft: "It's great. It's instant feedback. ... We give a lot of support to blogging and on how to be a good blogger."


I do not agree with the doom and gloom crowd that says that this is the end of free speech. To begin with, if you are blogging at the office there are a multitude of issues and ethics involved in that, not to mention that you are telling your IT department and company all about your blog. In effect you open yourself up and invite comment.

It is possible to blog from other places and to speak about the office, but you have to be careful with the details and specific information in your posts. Nothing profound there, just common sense.

Comments

Anonymous said…
It's a good idea to be cautious. A blog is a nice outlet, but not worth losing a job.
stc said…
I agree, it's mostly a matter of common sense. Blogs straddle the line between the private and public realms. Their content is highly personal, but they have the potential to reach a vast audience.

If I bad-mouth someone in a pub, few will hear what I say and there will be no permanent record of it. But to bad-mouth someone on a blog has the potential to publicly humiliate them.

I have a mixed response to the IBM guidelines:
You must make it clear that you are speaking for yourself and not on behalf of IBM.
This seems quite reasonable to me. We're familiar with this sort of warning from TV: "the views expressed on this program do not necessarily represent the view of the broadcaster" or sponsor, etc.

But this? The guidelines also say bloggers should not use "ethnic slurs, personal insults, obscenity, etc.", and should be careful what they say about religion.
To me, this crosses the line into censorship of my private opinions and my freedom of expression.

Not that I'm prone to ethnic slurs or obscenity! But my employer has no business trying to set boundaries on my behaviour outside the workplace, except where it directly concerns inside information.

That's my view.
Q
Jack Steiner said…
Q, Mirty,

Can't say that I disagree with either of you.
Unknown said…
I wouldn't say anything on my blog that I wouldn't say to someone's face although it could be embarassing...I'd say it. I checked earlier when I thought I was being dooced to see if there was a problem...and so far I haven't gone to the dark side with this. I do try to hide the names and not talk specifically about what we do or what I think of the Commonwealth or their employees.
Jack Steiner said…
One of the nice things about the blog is to be able to speak more freely. I love that.
PsychoToddler said…
Did it mention anything about blogging at work,not just about it?
Peter said…
Yeah, what happened was a co-worker went through my history and found me complaining about her eating on the phone while answering phones at the front desk and things like that. In my case, they never said anything about me using the computer for personal use at work, just that my manager had her feelings hurt and fired me.
Jack Steiner said…
Hi Peter,

That sucks.