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Bloggers Find The Ax is Mightier Than The Pen

March 3, 2005
Related Topics: Technology and the Law, Internet, Featured Article

Only a year ago, Ellen Simonetti was flying high. The flight attendant for Delta Air Lines was traveling the world and chronicling her life and adventures in a blog,Diary of a Flight Attendant. A couple of times each week, the self-styled "Queen of the Sky," an eight-year employee of the airline, discussed where she had been, what she had done and whom she had met.

    Then, on September 25, Simonetti returned home to find the stern-sounding message on her answering machine from an in-flight supervisor. She was to call about her scheduled flight to Rome the following day. Then dropped the bombshell: "You won’t be able to fly your trip tomorrow. ... It’s about some pictures on the Web."

    Ten days later, Delta informed Simonetti that she had been suspended for posting "inappropriate" pictures—namely, images of her and other Delta employees in uniform.

    Simonetti, who had never faced disciplinary action before, promptly removed the photographs from the blog. But when she trolled elsewhere on the Web, she found other blogs with photos of Delta employees. She then scoured her company policy manual and found no rule prohibiting her from posting pictures of herself in uniform on the Web.

    Things got worse from there. After meeting with Delta management, Simonetti filed a sex discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

    Delta fired her on Oct. 29. "I was never given a warning. I feel as though I’ve been singled out and that Delta is trying to make an example out of me," says Simonetti, a 30-year-old resident of Austin, Texas.

    These days, the Queen of the Sky isn’t the only person who has discovered that work-related blogging can put you out of a job.

    In January, Mark Jen, a Google employee of less than a month’s tenure, ran afoul of his employer for his too-candid blog. In it, Jen wrote about a number of company matters, including a detailed comp and benefits breakdown. In mid-January, his blog came down for a short time and then reappeared, without the offending material. Jen apologized for his missteps: "I goofed and put some stuff up on my blog that’s not supposed to be there. ... Just so you know, Google was pretty cool about all this."

    As it turns out, Google wasn’t quite that cool. Jen reported on his blog that he was fired on Jan. 28. "Either directly or indirectly, my blog was the reason," he says. "People ask me if I’m bitter. Funny thing is, despite all this, at the end of the day, I can see where Google is coming from—but I don’t agree with their stances and I wish they had executed a little differently."

    Michael Hanscom snapped pictures of Apple PowerMac G5 computers sitting on a loading dock at Microsoft. He posted the pictures to his blog and promptly found himself fired from his temp job with Xerox, which had been contracted by Microsoft to handle work on its Redmond, Washington, campus. Joyce Park, a former software engineer for Mountain View, California-based Friendster, claims she was terminated for posting publicly available information about the company. And the list goes on.

    Technorati, a San Francisco firm that tracks blogging, reports that more than 5,000 "corporate bloggers" are typing away today. These are individuals who post on behalf of a company. Countless others, like Simonetti, have taken up the task as a hobby. "We are still at the relative start of accepted use of blogging as a part of corporate policy," Technorati founder and CEO David Sifry notes.

    "The popularity of blogging is growing rapidly, but most companies and employees are grappling with what’s acceptable and what isn’t," says Michael Rudnick, national intranet and portal practice leader for Watson Wyatt. Adds Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at UCLA: "Legal challenges arising out of terminations related to blogging are a vague and under-litigated area of law."

    It’s an issue that raises plenty of questions. Do employees have the right to post online commentaries about their employers and jobs? Is it wise for employers to restrict these sites? And what happens when employees step over the line and post something that’s embarrassing or detrimental to co-workers or the company?

    There are no simple answers. But as more and more companies are discovering, blogging has taken on a life of its own. And while some companies such as Microsoft, Sun Microsystems and Red Hat Software support employee blogging--and some are even equipping employees with blogging software--others aren’t so sure that free-form Web blabbing about the company is a good idea.

The word’s out
    In the most basic terms, a blog offers a way for a person to communicate with others via the Web. A blogger posts comments—a sort of diary or ongoing letter to readers—on whatever topic he or she chooses. Simonetti, for instance, began blogging after her mother died of cancer in September 2003. She found the experience cathartic and fun. Only about 200 to 300 people per day were reading her blog before the run-in with Delta, she says.

    With a software program such as Weblogger, Blogger or Movable Type, it’s possible to create a blog and post entries in a matter of minutes.

    Some blogs have evolved into key sources of industry information and influence mainstream media as well as companies large and small. A blog by Sun Microsystems president Jonathan Schwartz is widely read within the tech industry. General Motors vice chairman Robert A. Lutz’s FastLane Blog provides news and information about the automaker’s products.

    A blog can serve as a marketing tool. Over the past few years, PR and advertising firms have turned to blogs to create buzz about new products. Companies such as Sun, Red Hat and Microsoft have found that blogs are a great way to connect to a customer base or professionals within an industry.

    "Blogs create a more personal interaction," says J.D. Iles, owner of the Lincoln Sign Co. in Lincoln, New Hampshire. His blog, Signs Never Sleep, focusing on a mix of business and personal issues, has been viewed by more than 14,000 visitors since September.

    Red Hat, a software development company in Raleigh, North Carolina, is typical of a new generation of companies that support blogging. The company rolled out an officially sanctioned blog early last year, and more than two dozen executives, developers and engineers contribute to it.

    "It is a platform for any employee that has the urge to speak about something that he or she has a passion for," says Greg DeKoenigsberg, community relations manager for Red Hat.

    At Microsoft, more than 1,200 bloggers offer perspectives on everything from product development to programming strategies--though the company isn’t particularly eager to provide bloggers who can discuss the topic.

    "We get important, real-time feedback on our products, and customers get greater insight into what is going on with key technologies inside the company," says Pete McKiernan, lead product manager for Microsoft’s Platform Strategy Group. "Blogging is a natural extension of what is in our corporate DNA."

    Both Microsoft and Red Hat allow any employee interested in blogging to do so. Still, at least in Microsoft’s case, a lack of judgment--posting a photo from an area that is supposed to be off-limits to the public--can clearly have repercussions.

    "The only guideline is to use common sense and not say something that’s stupid or is detrimental to the company," Red Hat’s DeKoenigsberg says. "We give employees the freedom to post what they want, but we hold them accountable for it. If they post something that does damage to the company or our cause, there will be consequences." That could include a reprimand, disciplinary action or, in a worst-case scenario, termination.

Online and out of line
    Like Google, not all companies get a smooth ride in blogs. In November, a "disgruntled spouse" posted a lengthy message on an independent blog,LiveJournal, about how the author’s "significant other" was forced to work 85-hour weeks at Electronic Arts, a leading video and computer game developer.

    The posting set off a flurry of activity, including several thousand posts at LiveJournal and articles in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times and at about industry conditions. It also led to a class-action lawsuit in November that accused Electronic Arts of not paying overtime wages.

    Simonetti, meanwhile, is moving forward with her lawsuit against Delta. Traffic at her blog varies, from a trickle of readers each day to nearly 6,000.

    "It seems like a situation that could have easily been avoided. If they had simply asked me to take the pictures down, I would have done it immediately," she says.

    UCLA’s Volokh says that employers in most states can fire an employee for pretty much any reason short of one’s sex or religion and have no obligation to allow free speech. But a termination in a blog transgression can be a case of winning the battle but losing the war.

    "Companies must understand that this isn’t just a random hobby that a few people are engaging in. It’s becoming a mainstream and widespread form of communication," Volokh says. "Employers must recognize that unless they accommodate blogging, they risk losing good people."

    Developing a cohesive set of guidelines or clear policy is essential, Watson Wyatt’s Rudnick says. When all parties know the rules, it’s possible to give workers the freedom to post and avoid many mishaps and misunderstandings.

    In many cases, it’s possible to expand on general policies and guidelines to cover blogs, he says. Simply addressing blogging and referencing it in the corporate policy manual is likely to suffice, he notes.

    "The best bet is to use blogs and respond to postings with the truth," Rudnick says. "There’s no way to put the genie back in the bottle. The power of blogging has been clearly established."

Workforce Management, March 2005, pp. 74-75 -- Subscribe Now!

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