Workforce.com

A Tighter Rein on HR Blogging

September 4, 2009
HR blogger Joel Cheesman has taken his share of shots at Monster.com:

“Monster still really dumb, buys Trovix”; “The rats are apparently leaving the sinking ship in droves”; and “ ‘Bloody Monday’ at Monster” are among the things he has written about the job board giant in recent years.

With more than 21,000 monthly visitors, Cheesman’s Cheezhead site is arguably the most influential blog tracking human resources. The Cleveland-based Cheesman’s blog has uncovered some key stories in the industry, including the “Bloody Monday” of layoffs at Monster in July. But Cheesman does not disclose in posts about Monster that as a consultant, he works for clients that compete with the job board.

Given the combustible mix of scathing coverage, conflicts of interest and genuine scoops, Cheesman, 38, evokes strong opinions within the industry. His site is also a microcosm of the promise and problems of the HR and employment blogosphere.

This loose community of journalists, pundits and practitioners has grown in importance in the world of people management in the last five years or so. As a group, HR bloggers are breaking news, stimulating discussion and challenging the stronghold of traditional media organizations that cover human resources, including Workforce Management.

But partly because of new guidelines on advertising and blogging under review by the Federal Trade Commission, some HR blogger practices are coming under scrutiny, including questions about reporting standards and the disclosure of conflicts of interest.

Cheesman says he does his best to separate his blog activities from his consulting businesses and to get the facts right. Still, he argues, it’s up to readers to realize they are looking at a new, less-tame type of media.

“The consumer should understand that this is a blog, not a news outlet,” he says.

An explosion of bloggers
The HR blogosphere has its roots in the mid-1990s, when John Sumser, founder of consulting and publishing firm interbiznet, began writing daily dispatches focused on electronic recruiting. HR blogging really took off earlier this decade, when a number of people in the field started blogs with easy-to-use tools such as Google’s Blogger.

Today there are scores of HR blogs with authors commenting on topics ranging from recruiting to benefits to compensation to overall people management. Some bloggers have paired traditional blog items running several hundred words with Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, the micro-blogging tool that has exploded in popularity in the past year or so. HR bloggers may use Twitter to link to more extensive blog posts or simply make their point in a series of tweets.

Although it is easy to launch a blog, it may be too late to gain a large following, says Jason Corsello, vice president at HR technology consulting firm Knowledge Infusion. Corsello has maintained a blog, The Human Capitalist, since 2005. (Corsello is one of several affiliated bloggers featured on Workforce Management’s Web site, workforce.com, which also maintains four staff blogs and features two blogger networks, Fistful of Talent and Benefits Buzz.)

Quality blogging takes time, and there’s already an established constellation of leading bloggers, Corsello says. In fact, he views traditional blogs as past their prime given the rise of other social media.

“Blogging probably has become less relevant than it was four years ago,” Corsello says.

Still, a number of HR-related blogs, including Renegade HR, Evil HR Lady and Your HR Guy.com, are growing in online popularity.

Your HR Guy.com is written by Lance Haun, a Portland, Oregon-based HR professional who began his blog in 2006. He initially posted at least one item a day. Now, he publishes one or two posts a week that tackle topics in greater depth. Recent items have covered fun at work, social networking and why HR isn’t politically vocal.

Haun’s site gets about 15,000 page views per month, up 75 percent from a year ago. And some readers are heavy hitters in HR. His post on HR pros’ reluctance to talk politics sparked comments from Sue Meisinger, former CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, and  China Gorman, SHRM’s chief global member engagement officer.

Adding social media to the mix
Gorman’s decision to weigh in on Haun’s blog is part of a broader push by SHRM into the world of social media. Gorman used Twitter to announce that Jack Welch would keynote the SHRM conference in June, and 2009 is the first year SHRM selectively invited bloggers to cover its annual event as credentialed media.

Also part of the blogosphere are HR vendors, including software companies Kenexa and Taleo and job board CareerBuilder.com. Vendor blogs cover talent management issues, discuss new research and tout products.

Blogs are becoming a vital way to stay abreast of the leading thinkers in the industry, says Stan Swete, chief technology officer at HR software firm Workday.

“The influential people in the space are moving to blogging as a way to get their thoughts out more immediately,” Swete says.

HR-related blogs also are breaking ground in the way people management is discussed. In contrast with traditional, impersonal commentary, some blogs mash up once-private topics with public matters.

Career columnist Penelope Trunk, in her Brazen Careerist blog, has revealed details of her sex life and marriage as it relates to work. Sumser, who sold his interest in interbiznet in 2007 but continues to blog on his own site, says Trunk’s authentic approach appeals to Generation Y members.

“They want meaning and they want real people,” he says.

Cheesman, who has been blogging since 2005, contends he and other bloggers have widened the discussion of HR issues beyond what industry publications typically covered. Bloggers’ fire in the belly has helped educate the profession, he says.

“Passion leads to curiosity, and people want to learn more,” he says.

The comments sections of HR blogs often are as important as the initial blog post. For one, they can erupt into informal discussions of industry issues where anyone can contribute.

They also can lead to surprising revelations and claims. For instance, an anonymous comment on Cheezhead in 2007 alleged that Jason Goldberg, former head of HR software firm Jobster, had threatened to shoot staff members for leaking company information.

“Clearly the young man has gone off the deep-end,” the commenter wrote about Goldberg.

Goldberg now works at Germany-based professional networking firm Xing. Through a Xing representative, he declined to comment for this story.

The Goldberg flap isn’t the only time Cheezhead has turned heads in the industry. Cheesman also broke the news—citing an anonymous source—that Monster was laying off employees earlier this year. The Cheezhead post was off on the exact figure—the source estimated 200 jobs were affected, compared with an actual tally of about 160. But Cheesman beat other media in getting the news.

Opinion versus fact
Blogs including Cheesman’s have come under fire, though, for issues including shoddy reporting and sensationalism.

“Many of these voices are pure opinion that is described as fact,” says Gerry Crispin, a blogger and co-founder of recruiting advisory firm CareerXroads.

Organizations in the HR field say they’ve been burned by bloggers acting badly. Simply Hired, which aggregates job postings for job seekers, suffered such an incident earlier this year, says Katya White, Simply Hired’s senior marketing communications manager. White declined to specify the blogger in question, but says a blog post was based on an offhand comment made by someone who worked with Simply Hired.

“The blogger didn’t call us to confirm the information,” she says. “We had to react and it became a fire alarm for us. We had to appease our partners” and tell them the information was inaccurate.

Shawn Boyer, CEO of job board SnagAJob.com, says he has found Cheesman’s coverage of Monster to be over the top.

“It’s easy to take the potshots at the big guys,” Boyer says. “I don’t think they’re the idiots that they’re made out to be sometimes.”

Cheesman cops to the accusation made by a reader that his site is “the TMZ of the recruitment industry”—a reference to the celebrity gossip and news site. But he says he has never gotten into legal trouble over his blog postings.

And he says that over time he has become “more fair” to Monster. One sign of evenhandedness: In late August, Cheezhead posted a story noting that an analyst said Monster is the only major employment site showing signs of stabilization.

Monster declined to comment for this story.

Another drawback to the blogosphere is the amount of dross, observers say.

“There’s some good nuggets,” Boyer says. “But you’ve got to spend a fair amount of time digging to find them.”

Boyer, whose site focuses on hourly wage positions, says he spends just 30 minutes or so a week on HR blogs.

Also a bit jaded about the HR blogosphere is Mauro Canori, an HR executive focused on talent management and organizational effectiveness at pharmaceutical firm Merck. Canori estimates he spends 30 to 60 minutes a week looking at industry blogs and says the sites have failed to live up to their promise of creating useful communities of practice.

Having to surf through a lot of pages before finding relevant information is part of the problem, Canori says. He also bemoans a lack of documentation or proper citation in blog postings. But his biggest beef is the way authors aren’t always transparent about their biases.

“What’s the agenda—or the hidden agenda—of these bloggers?” he asks.

Pay to play
Pressure to buy ads on sites in exchange for positive coverage has been a problem, says Bill Warren, executive director of DirectEmployers, a group of companies that runs the JobCentral job board.

“It absolutely does happen in the industry,” Warren says.

Maren Hogan, a marketing consultant and blogger, argues the HR blogosphere may be particularly prone to transparency trouble.

“I see a lot of people in the social media sphere saying, ‘You should go to ABC,’ when they’re contracting with them,” says Hogan, who blogs for Fistful of Talent. “I see it happening more with HR bloggers and less with marketing folks because marketing folks tend to skew more toward journalism, PR and [corporate communications] and understand the rules that have surrounded this for a long time.”

Haun says revealing conflicts of interest is “incredibly important.” But his site hasn’t always done so. Haun recently took a job at MeritBuilder, a firm that sells a system for thanking employees.

He wrote about the new job in a blog post in August. But Haun’s “About” Web page did not mention the position for much of August—meaning readers new to the site might not have known about Haun’s financial stake in the incentive and rewards industry and MeritBuilder in particular.

Alerted to this discrepancy in an interview, Haun conceded, “I should update that.” He soon did so.

Jason Corsello’s employer, Knowledge Infusion, does business with HR software vendors. Corsello often writes about such vendors in his Human Capitalist blog but does not include in his posts information about whether the company in question is a client or a rival to a client. Nor does the “About” page of his blog list Knowledge Infusion clients.

Corsello says he has struggled with what to disclose, but says Knowledge Infusion is in step with the overall blogosphere, where disclosures are rare.

“Ultimately it comes down to the reliability, credibility and authenticity of the source,” he says. “We’ve written both critical and complimentary posts about vendors.”

Cheesman also has business interests in the HR field. His firm, HRSEO, offers to help clients including job boards improve the way their job listings appear in the organic search results at search engines such as Google. A more recent business is Cheesman’s HirePPC, where he works on behalf of clients to have their paid advertisements appear more prominently on job aggregation sites such as Indeed.com.

Cheesman also has a sponsorship deal with DirectEmployers, whose ads are prominent on the Cheezhead site. The initial contract paid Cheesman $100,000 for two years. It has been extended, but Cheesman declines to state its financial terms.

That sponsorship and other Cheesman business activities are noted on the Cheezhead site. But he does not disclose these interests—which by and large are aligned against Monster—in posts. Cheesman says his approach isn’t much different from newspapers, which do not as a rule reveal all their advertisers in news stories.

Cheesman says he has never taken money in return for a post, unless it was sponsored. Sponsored posts on the site are identified in the headline.

“There is no intent to deceive,” he says.

Cracking down on disclosure
Good intentions may not be good enough for the FTC. The agency has published a draft set of rules designed to clarify how federal law banning deceptive endorsements in advertising applies in today’s era of social media.

For example, the guidelines state that if a video game maker sends a blogger a new game system free of charge in exchange for a review, and the blogger writes a favorable review, the blogger should disclose the gift. That’s because knowledge of the arrangement would affect how much readers trust the endorsement.

Richard Cleland, FTC assistant director of advertising practices, says his agency hasn’t taken a look at the HR blogosphere in particular. But he says business relations between HR industry bloggers and vendors they write about could be put to this key test: Would the relationship, if known, alter the credibility of the post in the minds of readers?

“The only way to determine this is on a case-to-case basis,” Cleland says.

The lack of a black-and-white disclosure standard raises a question: Is effective enforcement possible? Al Campa, chief marketing officer at Taleo, says it would be difficult to force HR bloggers to disclose all of their business relationships, given how extensive and interwoven these can be.

“It’s unrealistic to try to untangle the web, because it touches everything,” he says. “Many bloggers have relationships or have done consulting or have been employees of the companies they blog on.”

Another counter-argument to federal intervention is that blogs have effective self-policing mechanisms.

Most blogs allow readers to post comments—including anonymous remarks—and these let the audience challenge authors. What’s more, the tight-knit nature of the field limits deception by bloggers, Hogan argues.

“I know a lot of these people,” she says. “I know for a fact if they have a deal, and so do most people in our industry.”

The FTC is expected to decide later this year whether to adopt the draft rules.

The taming of the blogger
Whether or not HR bloggers face greater government regulation, there’s evidence the field is maturing from its Wild West days. In a number of cases, bloggers have coalesced into groups, which provide a kind of filter for readers.

Recruiting bloggers and writers such as Kevin Wheeler, Bill Humbert and Krista Bradford post at ERE.net, an organization that acts as a hub for the hiring profession. Industry publications including Talent Management magazine feature blogs written by staffers or outside authors.

Cheezhead itself has morphed into something of a traditional news service, with two writers joining Cheesman to produce posts.

Cheesman admits he was more of a sensationalist in the past.

In the beginning, “I didn’t think anyone would listen, or anyone would care or notice,” he says. “But they did.”