Joe Gordon thought he would raise a laugh among family and friends when he referred to his employer, Waterstones, as ‘Bastardstones’ in his blog. His manager even merited a special mention – as Evil Boss.
Waterstones, however, didn’t see the joke. Gordon was dismissed for gross misconduct in January last year.
Unions and fellow bloggers condemned the move as heavy-handed, but the tricky issue of dealing with employees who blog – ie, publish an online diary – has grown in prominence.
The trend started in the US, where companies to have fired bloggers include famous names such as Google, Delta Airlines and the Wells Fargo bank. Airing the corporate dirty linen in public simply isn’t acceptable for these companies.
In the wider world of the internet, however, blogs are the latest big thing. Almost 30 million currently exist, according to blogging website technorati.com, and about 70,000 more appear every day. Technorati estimates that 29,100 blog updates are published every hour.
Much of this enormous world of blogs will of course be self-obsessed musings with limited appeal. But it only takes one derogatory reference to your organisation to pop up on a search listing, and within hours it could appear higher up in the Google ratings than your official website. With journalists regularly combing the internet for stories, the risk of an allegation or indiscretion getting into the papers is a real one.
Watching the web
So how should HR manage the growth in the blogging culture? Is it necessary, or even advisable, to fire a blogging employee who has stepped over the line? Some observers believe that, in the current climate of the novelty of blogging, this only draws more attention to the blog. Ben Wilmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says that the problem with a high-profile instant dismissal is that other employees could resent the implications of a ‘Big Brother’ management style.
“We researched the impact of surveillance in companies and found that employees are less likely to feel positively about a company that is obviously monitoring the activities of its staff in this way,” he says.
“There is an argument that we should be fostering more of an adult-to-adult relationship between employer and employee, giving them autonomy, rather than controlling them like children.”
But Mark Rogers, chief executive of blog-monitoring firm Market Sentinel, believes it is worth quietly keeping an eye on any employee blogs, creating a company policy on what is and is not acceptable in blogs, and making sure employees are aware of these boundaries.
Technology companies employ more bloggers than other sectors, so are already getting to grips with how to deal with them.
Computer giant IBM, for example, saw the wisdom of coming up with its own guidelines (see box). Microsoft, meanwhile, has more than 2,000 in-house bloggers and has taken the view that, as many of the blogs actually promote company products, it should encourage, rather than stifle them. It has therefore decided against having a set of rules governing bloggers.
“Ultimately, as representatives of the company, we ask them to be accountable for the material they publish, but we don’t feel a set of rules would be useful or cover every eventuality,” explains a Microsoft spokeswoman. “In essence, it is more important to us that Microsoft’s bloggers are true to the spirit of what we are trying to achieve together than the words they use to describe it.”
Few UK employers have devised official guidelines so far, however.
The London Ambulance Service retains a watching brief on its bloggers, which includes two diaries written by an ambulance driver and dispatcher. Although its blogging sites, Random Acts of Reality and Nee Naw, contain some gentle digs at official policy, the majority of the content fosters better public understanding of the role and activities of the ambulance service. Recent postings have included an appeal for a Filipino bone marrow donor, and a piece on how calling in with trivial complaints makes people with more serious conditions wait longer for an ambulance to arrive.
According to a spokesman for the service, there have so far been no issues with blogs written by its employees. Its main concern is breaching patient confidentiality, so it keeps a close eye on the content.
Spreading the word
Blogs aren’t necessarily bad news for employers. Some forward-thinking organisations have turned the threat of having a scandal exposed into an opportunity. They do this by either supporting trusted employees to blog responsibly, or arranging employee blogs themselves. Others have set up internal blogs as an extension of their intranet.
Cadbury-Schweppes encourages its new graduate employees to blog about their experiences of working for the confectionery and drinks firm to act as a recruitment device for others thinking of joining the company. And investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein has set up an internal system of around 120 blogs, where employees can post their comments on company activities.
The ultimate employee blog, of course, is the chief executive’s. It’s a powerful PR technique when done well, says Rogers.
“There are many occasions when it would be useful for the organisation leader’s view to be available to the public, unfettered by the filter of the mainstream media,” he says.
In the UK, Care International’s chief executive Geoffrey Dennis is one of the few to have dabbled. He says that the main aim has been to give people (including potential donors) a better understanding of the charity’s activities.
“Because blogs are supposed to be informal, and in practice are often irreverent, it might seem contradictory for a chief executive to write a blog and post it on their organisation’s website,” he says. “But I have found it very interesting to think of creative ways of writing about my work and the work of Care, and hopefully giving our website visitors new insights into our organisation.”
To the sceptics, blogging is simply another way for workers to waste time on the internet. Used well, it can be a powerful and wide-reaching communications tool.
- Blog – A blog is a website in which items are posted on a regular basis and displayed in reverse chronological order. The term blog is a shortened form of weblog or web log. Authoring a blog, maintaining a blog or adding an article to an existing blog is called ‘blogging’. Individual articles on a blog are called ‘blog posts’, ‘posts’ or ‘entries’. A person who posts these entries is called a ‘blogger’. The whole thing occupies the ‘blogoshere’.
- Wiki – A wiki is a type of website that allows users to easily add and edit content and is especially suited for collaborative writing. The biggest example of this is Wikipedia, the online reference site that anyone can edit.
- Blogroll – A blogroll is a collection of links to other weblogs.
Guidelines for employee Bloggers
This list of suggested guidelines is based on computer giant IBM’s blogging code of conduct.
- Know and follow the company’s business conduct guidelines.
- Blogs and other forms of online discourse are individual interactions, not corporate communications. You are responsible for what you post online.
- Identify yourself – name and, when relevant, role – when you blog about the company or related matters. Write in the first person. You must make it clear that you are speaking for yourself and not on behalf of the company.
- If you publish a blog, use a disclaimer, such as: “The postings on this site solely reflect the personal views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views, positions, strategies or opinions of my company or the management.”
- Respect copyright, fair use and financial disclosure laws.
- Don’t share confidential or other proprietary information.
- Don’t cite or reference clients, partners or suppliers without their approval.
- Respect your audience. Don’t use ethnic slurs, personal insults, obscenity, etc, and show proper consideration for the privacy of others and for topics that may be considered objectionable or inflammatory – such as politics and religion.
- Don’t pick fights, be the first to correct your mistakes, and don’t alter previous posts without indicating that you have done so.
- Try to add value. Provide worthwhile information and perspective.