Don’t blog your way into trouble

The case of the first UK worker to be dismissed because he criticised his employer in an online diary should be a wake-up call for organisations and their HR departments, lawyers have warned.

Joe Gordon, who had worked for 11 years at the Edinburgh branch of book retailer Waterstone’s, was sacked earlier this month for “gross misconduct” and “bringing the company into disrepute” through the comments he posted on his weblog.

Gordon was what is known as a ‘blogger’. He said he had offered to stop posting anything about his working life when the company called a disciplinary meeting.

According to his union, the Retail Books Association, Waterstone’s rejected his plea, despite the fact that the company had no guidelines on whether employees are allowed to keep weblogs.

Why blog?
What motivates the bloggers? One – who wished to remain anonymous – reveals what it is that drives her and her fellow workers to the edge of reason…

“Like many bloggers, I’m a frustrated, opinionated writer. Blogging – with its potential audience of millions – is a easy way to exercise my creativity and make my views heard. As well as topical and cultural comment, my weblog is also an online diary, recording the events of my daily life – which naturally includes work.

“I’m dissatisfied with my job and unhappy with the way recent restructuring and management decisions have led to low morale, although I do not have an “evil boss” like the Waterstone’s employee.

“Most of my work-related moans on my blog are minor, everyday niggles about annoying colleagues or the dull nature of my employment, but I am not afraid to occasionally pull out the big guns over issues I feel passionately about.”

A chance to be heard
Other bloggers base their entire weblog around their work complaints. The writer of My Life As A Morrisons Employee routinely hauls the supermarket over the coals, with the management coming in for the most flack.

Likewise, a blogging friend in the US was forced to close down his site, subtitled My Nazi Boss, after his employers were alerted to it.

With more and more stories in the press about bloggers being sacked for making derogatory remarks about their work, you might wonder why we run the risk of commenting in such a public forum.

Why risk it?
First, most blog authors write under a pseudonym so assume – perhaps falsely – they will not be caught.

Plus, bloggers tend to form online communities through shared readership and reciprocated site links, so it is easy to feel you are writing for friends – the online equivalent of a chat down the pub. And, let’s face it, we have all slagged off the boss over a pint before.

The legal position
Legally, it is still a grey area as to what you can and cannot get away with.

On one hand, there is the issue of freedom of speech; on the other, a whole realm of issues to consider, not least the possibility of libel.

But most cautious bloggers go by the rule of thumb that as long as you are not bringing the company into serious “disrepute” and do not reveal any trade secrets, you should be OK.

A host of sites offer free blog templates and hosting, making it easier than ever for anyone to start their own weblog.

And because these sites can be accessed from any computer via the net, you can even write your blog entries while you are at work, via the company PC – although it would probably be best not to let the boss catch you at it…

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