Blogfired: Bloggers and Employers Test Each Others’ Boundaries

Unfortunately, domestic Newsweek killed my story due to a perceived conflict of interest. Then, Newsweek International bumped, and now today killed it as well. If I flutter about trying to find a new buyer for it, it will be long out of date before it appears. NPR’s Day to Day radio show covered the topic after my article was originally supposed to have come out; Marketplace radio, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Christian Science Monitor and Families in Business are all in some stage of a simliar story. So, here goes.



by Curt Hopkins

According to a new study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the number of people creating online diaries, or blogs, has topped eight million. The blog search engine Technorati currently counts over five and a half million individual blogs. That number has been doubling every five months for the last year and a half and the upward curve is continuing.

With the increased number of bloggers, whose sites are frequently expressive free-for-alls, comes an increasing number of conflicts with employers. Blog-related firings and reprimands have made the news in every sector, including high-tech, government and media. A January 11 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management indicates three percent of its member respondents have disciplined an employee for blogging over the past twelve months. 20 percent have fired employees over non-work related internet use.

“The boundary between what is intimate and private and on the other hand what is publishing-to-the-world is indistinct,” says the Pew project’s director, Lee Rainie. “In fact it’s damned indistinct.”

Many bloggers believe that the constitutional guarantee of free expression protects their activities. It does, but it does not protect their jobs.

“If you’re in the private sector, in almost every state in the country you’re under ‘employment at will,’” says Professor Carlin Meyer, an employment law specialist at New York Law School. “I’m not a fan of employment at will; it’s a 19th century doctrine that arises out of the idea freedom of will, but it doesn’t take into account the enormous power gap between employers and employees.”

The social networking company Friendster received unwanted attentions last year when it dismissed Joyce Park, who also wrote a popular blog called “Troutgirl,” allegedly for comments she made there deprecating the code that she had been hired to rewrite. Jonathan Abrams, the company’s founder and CEO, would not comment on the specific reasons for Park’s dismissal, but did speak to the issue of blogging itself.

“The (blogging) issue is one of immediacy,” said Adams. “Bloggers are so intent on impressing other people that they don’t take the time to check on what’s allowed.”

In an attempt to rectify this situation Ellen Simonetti, the blogger who was dismissed from Delta for appearing in uniform on her blog, has started the “Bloggers’ Rights Blog.” She is attempting to exert pressure on employers to create clear blogging policy, something few companies have.

“Employers should have a clear policy and warning system,” says Simonetti. “I worked at delta for eight years and had no disciplinary history.” She says she still is not certain exactly what caused her dismissal.

Rob Smith, who publishes the blog Gut Rumbles, agrees with the need for clear policy.

“It’s so easy to do this,” says Smith. “My company had a policy for everything you could think of, but not blogging. In my humble opinion this is a thing to be reckoned with.”

But for most companies, this issue is only now coming on the radar. Companies such as Wal-Mart and Barnes and Noble appear to have no specific blogging policy. David Sifry, CEO at Technorati, whose business is blogs, says his company’s blogging policy is “very simple. There are two rules: use common sense and if you do not use common sense you’re going to get a visit from me.”

Doug Simmons at the Village Voice, says his paper has no policy either, but that is intentional. “At the Voice, there is no restriction on expression,” he says. “I’m particularly grateful to be (here), where we err at the side of perhaps too much freedom.”

And, despite having David Scoble, who has done much to promote blogging in the company culture, Microsoft, according to a spokesperson, has no blogging policy separate from its existing employee guidelines. Neither does Friendster.

Sun Microsystems is one of the only large companies to have a specific policy on employee blogging. Sun President and COO Jonathan Schwartz credits the company’s creation of the policy to their mission of networking. The company provides the wherewithal for its employees to blog, in fact, with over 1,000 electing to do so.

“Sun embraces the network for more than simply technological reasons, but socially as well. It’s a natural extension of a well-defined corporate culture.” As far as companies that shy away from the possibilities of the blog, Schwartz credits fear. “Companies that view blogging as a threat to their business are the same ones that see cell phones as threat, or computers.”

Bob Stambaugh, president of the human resources technology consultancy Kapa’a Associates, believes that, as the numbers go up, and conflicts increase commensurately, instituting clear guidelines to employees will become commonplace.

“There will be a formal blogging policy,” at companies, says Stambaugh, “Because H.R. and I.T. can never let things develop by themselves.”

1 Comment

  1. Gerry Crispin says:

    Nice Job. Unreported though are extraordinary opportunities to manage positive customer relationships and prospective candidates through blogging

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