With one new blog being published online every second, companies are feeling the damaging effects of employees with a little too much to say. From the Microsoft worker who published a photo of Apple Macs being delivered to the company, to the Delta Airlines employee whose ‘revealing’ photos of herself got her fired for gross misconduct, the growing popularity of these online diaries is becoming a real problem for businesses. Sarah Fletcher asked members of HR Zone whether companies must take serious action to control the tide of employee bloggers.
Allowing employees to write an online diary may seem like a good idea, but don’t be fooled. Certainly there are potential business advantages – the employer appears progressive and can publicise its corporate image to a global market within seconds – yet without strict monitoring your staff may be sharing company secrets and making libellous statements to a huge audience. The growing number of cases in which a worker has been fired for publishing inappropriate comments about their employer clearly shows that businesses are feeling the threat of bloggers that are prepared to say too much.
Tread with caution
“One of the senior managers had been writing a blog for some weeks when he made the mistake of giving the link to one of his staff, who upon reading it informed the CEO of its contents,” recalls the employee of a publishing company. “The guy had been [criticising] the company and making comments about fellow staff members, mocking or insulting them. When the manager came into work the following morning he never even made it to his desk, he was taken into a room and we never saw him again, [he was charged with] gross misconduct and fired.” No business wants to give the suggestion it bullies its staff or treats them unreasonably harshly, so such a response reveals that businesses can’t afford to treat such incidents lightly.
The experience of Paramount proves this. The film giant hit the national press in the US after it tried to block journalist Eric D. Snider from press film screenings because he criticised them in his online journal. He retaliated by condemning them in his blog, the national media picked up on it and Paramount were suddenly catapulted into the news. All publicity is good publicity? Not necessarily.
Dealing with bad bloggers
So how should businesses deal with the threat of defamation or leaks of sensitive company information? “In New Zealand we treat this as similar to making such comments outside of work in such circumstances as to possibly damage the reputation of the organisation,” says consultant Don Rhodes. “It is treated the same whether the comments are against the company or an employee. It comes under our common law interpretation of ‘trust and confidence’ and is classified as serious misconduct. As a result, we recommend organisations clearly identify such actions as unacceptable in their employment documentation and then be sure to act upon any such incident, which confirms the seriousness.”
Businesses cannot afford to wait until an employee publicly damages their reputation. A written policy governing usage and content is essential and this should apply both in the office and at home outside of work hours. A confidentiality agreement covering the protection of trade secrets and confidential information should be signed by all staff. This means no employee can later complain that the rules governing online diaries were unclear and that the action taken by the company is unfair.
Many employees are sympathetic to the dilemma faced by businesses that banning staff from writing blogs and the company seems dictatorial and reactionary, but allowing online journals could prove disastrous for the company’s reputation. Respondents to the complaints by ‘Queen of the Sky’, the Delta Airlines employee who was fired for gross misconduct after bringing the company into disrepute through her blog, were less than sympathetic. “What did you expect?” asks one commentator. Others accuse her of “violating” the firm’s trust. The best way to secure support for your policy from staff is to lay out clearly and openly that you intend to discipline employees for such behaviour.
Karen Bailey, learning and development manager, Coors Brewers
Discipline – the right choice?
Staff will respect an employer that is firm on upholding company policy and taking disciplinary action if rules are broken. According to Karen Bailey, learning and development manager at Coors Brewers, workers that use online diaries to voice their grievances are violating the trust that exists between themselves and the employer: “The mutual trust and obligation extends to out of work times – if the employee has comments they should be aired and dealt with via the proper channels. Therefore… they should be disciplined. How would they feel if the company started talking about them online?”
“However, I have worked for one company that didn’t discourage it – even though the employees had set up an unofficial forum and were openly [criticising] the company. They felt they had a right to talk.” Lynn Hebb, HR manager of technology company Strategic Thought, suggests that an employee’s desire to make inappropriate comments about the business reveals a core problem: “We work quite hard on our company culture and overall we do feel that if anyone wanted to publish detrimental things about the company they would probably leave us first.”
“The fact that businesses are still unsure about how to manage the threat of employee bloggers is part of the problem – HR must become more aware of what damage could be done,” says Bailey. Awareness and communication are crucial to successfully managing this situation. “Many companies have a clause within their contracts about communication with the media in respect of the company, so anyone quoting the company specifically will be in breach of their employment contract. An area that HR has not always effectively communicated to their staff – after all the internet classes as publishing and media,” notes consultant Mike Morrison.
“It will be interesting to see in time how many companies use the libel laws of this country against employees. Of even more interest to HR is the potential impact on employment tribunals and their outcomes if details of particular situations are made public before either the completion of a disciplinary and grievance process or indeed the deliberations of an employment tribunal. We have all seen the impact of the press and TV on court cases – seen guilty people let off because of compromising data in the public arena. How quickly will this impact HR and due process?” he asks.
Sam Newell, director of Mindpool Consulting, argues that there is little a business can do to protect itself from staff that write online journals. “Realistically I don’t think there is anything employers can do to protect themselves. Blogs are just a modern method of communication like many available to each and everyone of us today, they are no more a threat than an internet chat room or any of the social or business networking sites now so popular.
“Employers should accept that blogs are here to stay. Unless they are going to ban staff from all methods of electronic communication… there is very little else they can do.” However, businesses must address the potential threat of online diaries and prepare to discipline, and even fire, employees that defame them publicly. You wouldn’t allow them to hold seminars telling the world what a terrible employer you are, so why let them do it online?