Infrastructure // PC & Servers
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8/10/2005
07:36 PM
Patricia Keefe
Patricia Keefe
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Blogging About Work? Play Nice

There's a tsunami building, fed by a combustible mix of incredibly stupid (and apparently mean-spirited) workers, public blogs, and nervous companies. I'm referring to the growing numbers of folks fired or reprimanded in the workplace for either exposing company plans or posting negative comments about co-workers in public blogs. The latest example comes from the Southern California branch of AAA, which last week fired 27 workers over their postings on the MySpace social-networking Web site, a

There's a tsunami building, fed by a combustible mix of incredibly stupid (and apparently mean-spirited) workers, public blogs, and nervous companies.

I'm referring to the growing numbers of folks fired or reprimanded in the workplace for either exposing company plans or posting negative comments about co-workers in public blogs.

The latest example comes from the Southern California branch of AAA, which last week fired 27 workers over their postings on the MySpace social-networking Web site, according to an Associated Press report. The postings came to light after one of the targets--a co-worker of the bloggers--complained. The posts were a mixture of insulting observations, and, according to an auto club spokeswoman, discussion about how the bloggers allegedly planned to slow down roadside assistance at work.

(Yikes. Can't you just picture a road sign urging: "Caution, stupid employees up ahead!"?)As noted by my colleague Rick Whiting, this issue is a prime example of technology outpacing human-resources programs. Simply put, corporate HR and legal departments have been caught napping on this one. Even among companies that actively encourage employees to blog, most of them, as recently as six months ago, lacked blogging guidelines for their employees.

There are several issues here, first and foremost being freedom of speech. But nowadays free speech is not so free, hemmed in as it is on one side by slander and libel laws, and by harassment policies on the other. (Just to be clear - I do not believe that freedom of speech is either a blanket right, or a viable defense for the nasty bloggers. But I do expect supporters of the fired bloggers will point first to that right as protective of their actions.)

Other issues that will surely come up in the debate over whether companies have the right to reprimand or fire employees who talk about the business or co-workers outside of work in private or public blogs:

  • Workers' right to privacy. Do companies really have the right to tell you what you cannot do outside of work? There seems to be some precedent for firing workers for activities they do on their own time--like take drugs--that show up or interfere with activities done on work time. Companies have also been stopped from firing pregnant or co-habiting employees.

  • The right to work in a nonthreatening or harassing environment. Most HR policies mandate that employees cannot create or contribute to an unpleasant work environment. Failing to respond to charges of harassment can get a company sued. Harassment of any kind seems to be the HR bogeyman of the '00s.

  • The corporate right to privacy. Most companies require employees not to talk about company business publicly, and it's usually implied, if not stated outright, that employees must not publicly disparage the company, its products, policies, or personnel.

  • The failure of legislation and public policy to keep up with technology. For example, voyeurs who use technology to invade the privacy of unsuspecting victims rarely get more than a slap on the wrist.

    The first question that has to be resolved is the age-old one for the Internet: Do different rules apply just because the action is taking place online? Does what happens online stay online?

    To respond to the last, in my view, the answer is no. Just because we stick the word "electronic" or "cyber" in front of an action or activity doesn't change what it fundamentally is, be it a sale, a slander, or a crime.

    In the absence of Miss Manners, I'd also like to point out that bad behavior shouldn't be more acceptable because it happened online using a hip new technology. The abundant lack of common sense surrounding this issue, from all sides, is astounding:

  • How can any company that has its own blogs, and encourages staffers to contribute to those blogs, not have a blogging policy?

  • Why aren't HR departments keeping up? And why does it take a monumental disaster--like the continual loss of consumers' personal data--to spur action on the part of lawmakers. Why can't they look ahead for once in their lives?

  • How can anyone expect to publicly insult and humiliate co-workers (or anyone for that matter) and not incur some retribution? (And why would you do that anyway?!)

    I don't know, maybe companies need to add an introductory class on workplace manners to their orientation programs, but in my view, anyone who would blog negatively about their colleagues or plots workplace sabotage should be fired.

    Teamwork is essential in most workplaces, and indeed, is one common key to success. Once a negative blogger is outed, the office pond is poisoned. It doesn't make any difference whether the nasty commentary was produced on company or personal time. Once it's public knowledge, the team loses trust in, and respect for, each other. You don't have to like your co-workers, but you do need to be polite and professional. If you can't manage that, you should probably stay away from the blogging boards and look elsewhere for work.

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