Sunday, September 03, 2006

Blogging in the Working World



The Foreigner Knows

Prohibition in the United States was repealed on December 5th, 1933, following the ratification of the 21st amendment by the state of Utah. Nevertheless, you should stay sober while reading this blog.


Imagine if you will - an average American Joe worker going about his daily life in the corporate world. Joe wakes up at 6:00 AM, grabs his $8 decaf non-fat latte from Starbucks, and drives towards the cubicle that is both his source of financial security and his reason for seeing a psychologist for the past five years. He does his job well, despite the fact he may have reservations and insecurities at times. He enjoys the company of his co-workers, although he has certain misgivings about them as well. Joe shows respect for his manager, even though at the core, he's the source of all his pain. On this particular morning, after arriving early to enjoy his caffeinated beverage and check his email, Joe's manager calls him into his office, looking rather serious. Reluctantly, he complies.


"Joe, I'm afraid we have to let you go."


Joe is at a loss. He's never been late, never done his job with anything but absolute precision, and has always behaved in an appropriate manner while in the workplace. What could he have done to be fired so unexpectedly?


"It's about your blog..."


Ah, yes, Joe's blog. Although Joe has always acted appropriately and professional while in the work place, in cyberspace, another story is unfolding. What is a blog? According to Dictionary.com, a blog is "an online diary; a personal chronological log of thoughts published on a Web page." Joe's blog definitely meets the definition - on occasion, he gets frustrated at his manager. Rather than express those troubles to the manager directly, he chooses to use a different outlet to vent those feelings: his blog. Why not? After all, a blog is by definition a diary, a collection of opinions, nothing more. Joe feels no sense of shame or betrayal in writing his opinions in his own personal journal. His manager, however, disagrees:


"You mention the company in several of your entries. This will not stand."

"But I don't mention any specific names or classified information about the company. And even if I did, it's freedom of speech, isn't it?"

"No, I'm afraid it isn't, Joe."


15-love to the manager. True, most Americans hold the first amendment as paramount in expressing their beliefs. In public forums, this is accepted whether the message is widely approved of or not. For example, the US is fairly split right now on the Iraq war. Neither side may like what the other says, but we have to respect their right to speak thus. However, as far as the private industry is concerned, the Constitution may as well not apply - they have their own rules, "laws" if you will, concerning public statements. It's really as simple a policy as the one you see in convenience stores - "we have the right to refuse service to anyone." Companies don't have to charge employees with slander, libel, or even prove defamation of the corporate name. If someone thinks you have go, you go. This is a point of contention still under review, as blogs are relatively new.

But does this apply to blogs? Although Joe is in America, his blog isn't anywhere - it's in cyberspace, hosted from one server to the next across three continents. Could one argue since his message isn't being "broadcast" in America, that he's free to say whatever he likes? What right does the company have to censor him? In some cases there are actually clauses you sign in your employment contract to not cause damage to the reputation of the company. Regardless of where the information is coming from, the source is still 100% Joe. Be careful to read the fine print.

So what exactly caused this dismissal? Publishing information that would be crucial to stockbrokers? New management, or a corporate merger? No... interoffice politics. Breakdowns in communication between Joe and his manager and co-workers, ones that he feels angry enough to warrant a few blog write-ups. Does this affect his behavior or performance in the workplace? No... and yet it's enough cause for him to be fired.

Although this is still a grey area in corporate policy, what executives need to understand is that there is no difference between blogging and writing in a journal at home. Now, I know some people disagree with that statement, but there really isn't. Bloggers aren't accredited or acknowledged authorities (well, most of them, anyway) on anything - they are simply people with opinions. You don't have to read them, you don't have to look at them. If you are a higher-up, and know an employee with a blog talking about you specifically, ignore it. The worst thing you can possibly do is bring it up in the workplace, because you make it a work-related issue, not the blogger. You bring it into the light, not the blogger. If you don't want to make the blog an issue, leave it be. It's just yet another opinion about your company on the internet, among thousands of others. All the blogger wants to do is write his opinions in peace. The blogger is perfectly content to continue venting his frustrations, rather than having them affect his performance in the workplace.

What's the best thing to do after you've been fired due to blogging? Keep blogging. In all likelihood the termination will spread like wildfire among your co-workers, contacts, and news organizations alike. There have been cases where decent bloggers have been offered book deals to discuss their experiences with blogging in the workplace.

If this isn't for you, and you don't feel like making a stand, there is no shame. You need to support yourself with a steady job, and a blog just isn't worth the risk. There isn't a firm across-the-board policy on bloggers as of yet, and until there is, we may expect to see many more terminations and lawsuits. If you want to express your opinions but are worried about retaliation, here are some tips (although employers find ways around these too):

1. Remove all references of the company's name and purpose

2. Lie or be ambiguous about your location

3. Don't use your real name, and especially don't use your last name

4. Don't mention any contact with co-workers or managers


For more information, see the following:

Blogger's Rights
Legal Guide for Bloggers
Dooced


Japan has its advantages. Learn about them from me. Mata ne.

5 comments:

Will said...

I really enjoy your blog, especially the AEON series - you have a good eye for detail and write well. On the freedom of speech point you have however misunderstood the nature of the right - it is a right vs-a-vis the federal government and citizens only - all the Constitution says is that the federal government may not infringe your freedom of speech. Private organizations can do what they want - the constitution does not affect them - it restricts the government. FWIW here are the words of the amendment:

“ Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.


Sorry to come across like a curmudgeon but I think your otherwise excellent writing is marred if you miss a basic point like this.

cheers

Will

ターナー said...

Will,

Thanks for reading. Let me address that.

I'm familiar with the first amendment, and I know constitutional law (by no means an expert, but it was one of my best university courses). I know that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are regarded as a direct agreement between the federal government and its citizens (personally, I disagree with this interpretation of original intent, even when it was upheld by the "original intenders" themselves); this kind of mentality led some states to consider state constitutions that directly contradicted the federal Constitution (or at the very least, did nothing to support it). Naturally, most state constitutions' bills of rights impart you the same basic freedoms as those listed in Constitution.

I don't think I misunderstood the nature of the right to free speech; just as you said, "private organizations can do what they want," so I said:

However, as far as the private industry is concerned, the constitution may as well not apply - they have their own rules, "laws" if you will, concerning public statements.

By the way, nice vocabulary; it's been a while since I've heard "curmudgeon".


- Turner

Will said...

Turner

Whether you agree with original intent or not is neither here nor there - the constitution protects your right of speech from interference by the government.That's it. The document enumerate rights that the government cannot interfere with. The constitution is not concerned the relationships between individuals, or individuals and corporations - it simply does not apply. Other legislation has been specifically enacted to enumerate rights in relation to employment, but there is no "freedom of speech" right vis-a-vis an employer. If you do something the employer judges to be detrimental to the company they can fire you. It doesn't have to be an illegal act - they can fire you for doing something they consider deleterious to their business.

And though a blog is somewhat analogous to a diary, it is a poor analogy: a diary is normally a private piece of writing. Anyone can read your blog - not anyone can read a diary.

cheers

Will

ターナー said...

Will,

I'm not disagreeing with you, just clarifying the point.

We'll see about the blog issue - I still think the logic surrounding that argument is sound; the employer creates more trouble by bringing the subject up in the workplace rather than leaving it alone.

Turner

Will said...

Here you have a point - by firing the employee the employer opens a whole new can of worms and gives the blogger carte blanche to say anything he or she wants. A quiet word would probably be more effective.