Mixing blogging with work can lead to unemployment
By Kate M. Jackson, Globe correspondent, 7/3/05
When Norah Burch included a link to her personal website - AnnoyYourFriends.com - in her work e-mail signature, she inadvertently annoyed her supervisors and lost her job.
Burch, who was working as an administrative coordinator in Harvard University's social studies department, said linking to a personal website was a common e-mail practice within her office. However, Burch's site also featured a link to her personal weblog, where - nestled among hundreds of posts on punk rock and pop culture - there were some negative comments about her co-workers. In one post, Burch talked about her supervisors' "anal retentive control freakishness" and "random freaking out." In another, she wrote she was "declaring open season on senior faculty members." Her supervisors eventually clicked their way onto Burch's journal, confronted her with printouts, and promptly showed her the door.
"The whole blogging thing was so new back then, I never expected anyone to find it and read it," said Burch, who was fired in May 2004. "I wrote in the blog to let off steam, not stir things up, but they viewed my e-mail signature as some kind of open invitation to read those comments. That wasn't the case at all but they made me out to be some kind of terrorist."
Steve Bradt, a Harvard spokesman, said the school does not comment on personnel matters.
Burch is part of a growing list of employees nationwide who have been fired for content posted on their personal blogs.
Short for Web log, a blog is a Web page that serves as a publicly accessible personal journal for an individual. Typically updated daily, blogs often reflect the personality of the author.
Delta Airlines, Google, Microsoft, Wells Fargo, and even Starbucks have terminated employees for their blogging practices. With 38,000 new Web logs created each day, more employees could find themselves a few clicks away from the unemployment line if their blogs are discovered and deemed inappropriate by their employers.
Blogs have been around since the mid-1990s but established themselves as an integral part of online culture after the last presidential election. By the end of 2004, blog readership jumped 58 percent and now represents 27 percent of all Internet users, according to a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Right now, the blogosphere is a digital free-for-all, and companies are scrambling to keep pace with the technology. While many employers recognize blogs as a powerful marketing tool, they are also concerned about the widespread circulation of company information, according to Stephen D. Lichtenstein, professor of law and chairman of Bentley College's law department. Lichtenstein is also a coauthor of a cyberlaw text book and is currently writing a section on blogging.
"This is an evolving topic that debates an employee's right to privacy versus an employer's proprietary rights," he said.
The American Management Association reports less than 25 percent of organizations surveyed have a written policy governing corporate or personal blogs, while 84 percent have a written policy governing use of e-mail.
But Lichtenstein said even if a company doesn't have a blogging policy, it can still fire employee bloggers under related policies about protecting proprietary information, upholding the company's reputation, and using the Internet at work.
Still, employees don't have to violate a nondisclosure or make threatening statements to be fired for their blogs, according to Gregory C. Keating, an employment attorney with Littler Mendelson.
"Most states, including Massachusetts, are employee-at-will states which means an employer has the right to fire a worker for any cause at any time - usually without any notice," he said.
It doesn't matter whether an employee uses a blog to disclose trade secrets or dish about the boss's flagrant combover.
"This is not Big Brother watching you; it's you putting something out there into the public domain," added Don Schroeder, an employment and labor attorney with Mintz Levin. "Assume it will be public and that it will travel very quickly."
Schroeder said employee bloggers who claim that their postings - like other forms of media - are protected under the First Amendment are misinformed.
"The First Amendment only applies to government workers. If you're part of a union or are working under a collective bargaining agreement, you may have some protections but by and large, First Amendment protections do not apply to private workers," Schroeder said.
The laws on blogging and privacy vary from state to state and depend upon a firm's culture or the nature of its business, he said.
According to a recent survey of 279 human resources professionals by the Society for Human Resources Management, 20 percent of the firms surveyed reported firing employees for improper Internet use in 2004. Only 3 percent were disciplined for blogging, and none were fired for blogging.
But posting to your blog during work could be considered improper Internet use, noted Chris Austin, a 27-year-old business analyst from Weymouth who maintains the political blog Dead Issue. "It's very easy for employers to ask an IT manager to print out a list of all websites visited by employees. If you've been posting to your blog at work, you could be fired for improper Internet use," he said. And it'd be a double whammy if you happened to be using the company computer to slam your co-workers in your blog, he said.
Remaining anonymous online is one way employees "can vent about work without damaging their ability to stay employed," said Annalee Newirth, a spokeswoman for the Electronic Freedom Foundation.
Newirth said her organization recently published a paper on how to blog anonymously, recommending services like Invisiblog and Anonymizer as means of flying beneath the radar online.
Dave Pye, 31, a search engine marketing consultant from Boston, said it's very easy to remain anonymous online and has little sympathy for people who have been fired for posting to their blogs.
Pye said he started his blog Pye in the Face to better understand blogs as marketing tools, but it took on a life of its own, garnering a readership of about 200 people a day. "It's meant to be funny and entertaining. Yes, I frequently talk about search engine optimization, but I never talk about my clients or what I do for them," he said.
Pye's comments ring true for many in the marketing world as more consumers look to blogs to gather information on companies. "People know spin when they see it. They know that corporate Web pages and literature are filtered through a public relations voice," said David Weinberger, a writer and fellow at Harvard University's Berkman School for Internet & Society. "Companies look at blogs, hear a human voice, and it scares them."
In its May 2005 cover story, Business Week magazine called blogs "the most explosive outbreak in the information world since the Internet itself ... Blogs are not a business elective. They're a prerequisite."
As a result, the traditional employee-at-will relationship and some corporate policies could shift as expectations of privacy evolve with this new technology, said Steven Chow, a partner with Perkins Smith & Cohen, a law firm specializing in technology and intellectual property.
"It'll come down to how much privacy we're willing to deal with," said Chow. "We don't expect our employers to go through our pocketbooks at our desks. But will our home computers and laptops be fair game with so many people working from home? There is certainly a disconnect and where we end up in the long run is still open for discussion."
For now, fired blogger Norah Burch is working at Newbury Comics, a company that she said is welcoming of bloggers. "The first thing I did was read the employee handbook," she said.
But despite those assurances, Burch posts under a pseudonym - just in case.
How jobs and blogs can coexist?
Even if a firm does not have a specific blogging policy, related issues like disclosure of proprietary information and Internet use at work could land blogging employees in hot water. The following are general rules for a workplace where jobs and personal blogs can coexist:
- Read your company policy on Internet use, e-mail, and dissemination of information.
- Only post content on your blog that you would not mind your colleagues and supervisors reading.
- Do not act as a de facto company spokesman. If you identify yourself as a company employee, make it clear that opinions expressed on the site are not necessarily the views of your company.
- Use online services that allow you to blog anonymously.
- Never visit, update, or post to your blog on your firm's computer.
- Never disclose confidential information about your company.
- Think twice before pressing 'post.' Even if you delete a post, it is still out there somewhere.
Annalee Newirth, Electronic Freedom Foundation; Stephen D. Lichtenstein, Bentley College law department; Steven Chow, Perkins, Smith & Cohen; Gregory C. Keating, Littler Mendelson; Don Schroeder, Mintz Levin; Boston area bloggers Dave Pye and Chris Austin.