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Protecting your business from bloggers. By Sarah Fletcher

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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.

“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.”

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.

“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.”

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.

The future
“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?

6 Responses

  1. Humanity first
    I don’t think it is possible to ban staff from blogging, any more than you can stop them moaning to ‘outsiders’.
    But you can justifiably say to someone who goes too far ‘ Why didn’t you tell us how you felt about the business in which you work ? What do you want done about it ? How can you help solve the problem ? Are you part of it ?

    And anyone who really goes too far, or makes unjustifiable statements likely to damage the organization should be told ‘ You obviously don’t like working here; the answer is in your own hands’.
    I am not an employment lawyer, but I do not see how either of those approaches could give rise to a claim for constructive dismissal.

  2. In the most perfect of all possible worlds….
    Ideally everyone in an organisation is fully engaged, motivated and “on message” (apologies).

    In reality not everyone will feel like this and will take every opportunity to talk down the organisation, the boss, their boss, the food, the toilets…..

    Where the talking down crosses the line into being plain untrue and defamatory, a legal option exists.

    As far as internal disciplinary action goes, do you expect your people to support the organisation in the pursuit of its objectives? Pointing out the failures could be construed as doing that of course.

    In the end it is a matter of balance. Fair comment is one thing, blatant biased bitchiness is not acceptable.

    The blogger operates in an isolated environment which leads to feelings of grandeur and invulnerability. The medium tends to make us less polite than is desirable!

  3. Clarification
    Thanks for your comments. I’d like to clear something up; I suggest that without strict monitoring of your employees’ blogging activities there is a risk that they could make libellous statements or share company secrets – not that they necessarily will or that this is a common (real rather than perceived) problem.

    As an example, in the case of the ‘Queen of the Sky’, I read her blog and her later protests (rather than a second hand report of it) and whether the decision to fire her for posing in the company’s uniform for photos was appropriate or not, the point is that the company itself saw this as a problem. So the issue i’m raising here is more about what a business can do to protect itself from perceived problems and take steps to prevent potential disciplinary cases – employees may have a right to say what they like, but there is always the possibility that they may make statements that damage the company.

    Kind regards,
    Sarah, HR Zone

  4. View of blogs is misleading
    Where is the proof that employees are “sharing company secrets and making libellous comments to a hug audience”?
    Where is the proof that employees damage the “reputation” of their employers through blogs?
    The article is alarmist at best. The case you refer to the most – Queen of the Sky – did not involve sharing company secrets, making libellous comments, damaging reputations. The only damage this case did to the company was the media interest that came from a ridiculous decision to fire someone for posting pictures on her blog.
    I agree that employees do reveal company secrets, yet the secrets they reveal are the ridiculous practices that some times go on in organizations that organizations does not want the outside world to know about. For example, a Microsoft employee revealing the company’s dependence on its competitors produce.
    If you want to know more about such blogs why don’t you actually do some research, i.e. read some of these blogs for yourself instead of relying on biased second hand resources.
    See my blog as it links to 100s of such blogs.
    http://workblogging.blogspot.com/

  5. We got it wrong
    I think this article is trying to champion a lost cause : stopping the employees from talking in public. It would not happen. It is not about tying up the loose ends in the disciplinary system, for God’s sake! It is about getting ready for a more transparent enterprise, and if you look the wrong way, you lose the game.

    While we love all employees to be clones of ourselves, let’s face it – they are not. They will talk, in pubs, clubs, bars, gatherings of friends. Blogs are similar. The only thing you are trying to jump upon is that they are public and written, but remember it is so easy to be annonymous. And, try figure out who writes the blog, and you have not taken your lessons from HP.

    It is more about looking seriously into employee perspective and innovations in feedback process than the disciplinary angle we should be talking about here.

  6. Missing the blogboat?
    I liked the comment from Sam Newell: “You wouldn’t allow them to hold seminars telling the world what a terrible employer you are, so why let them do it online?”

    Maybe this says more than he (and the rest of this article) intends. The employers that will suffer here are the “terrible employers”.

    Lots of the realm of communications is changing from a controlling broadcast to a highly devolved network model. Another way to look at the same story is “Be a good employer, and you’ll get plaudits”. Not just that, but extremely convincing plaudits, targeted at the people you most need to see them.

    Have a look at “naked conversations” by Scoble and Israel for much much more of this (their blog is http://redcouch.typepad.com)

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