Jobs & Weblogs

I’ve been sitting on this one for a while. The story behind it is a bit old now, but I’m just now feeling motivated enough to actually write it up.

Here’s the fundamental question behind this post: why are people surprised when they are fired for bad-mouthing their employer and co-workers on their web sites?

“Dooced” is a pretty common term in the blogosphere these days. For anyone who doesn’t know its meaning and/or etymology, the Wikipedia entry gives a pretty good high-level summary. Last month, the media latched onto another case of a woman getting fired for roughly the same reason.

So, here’s how I view this. My employer as an entity has absolutely no good reason to concern itself with my life outside of work, and that includes this web log. However, part of the reason for that is that this web log has absolutely no reason to concern itself with the details of my experiences as an employee. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when I’ve considered that it might be okay to share specifics of my work in this weblog, regardless of whether or not I name my employer or the people in those accounts.

To me, what it boils down to is this: whatever my “typical” readership is, this web log amounts to public media. Google indexes this site quite thoroughly. Anyone who publishes a web site and doesn’t know about the Wayback Machine at archive.org REALLY needs to go there and search for their own URL. Look up URLs for sites that are years-dead. Go try it. Look up “http://www.eng.ua.edu/~jmcclure/”. Scary.

My point… I don’t care how crafty I think I am, the web is a public medium, and there’s enough information out there to connect the dots between me, my job, and any comments I make about my job on my site. Given that, how can I expect my employer not to protect itself in that situation, and unless there was clear discrimination (based on the legal definition, which doesn’t include the right to bad-mouth my employer) how can I expect to have any recourse or right to complain?

11 thoughts on “Jobs & Weblogs

  1. In the example given, what exactly does the company think they’re “protecting” themselves against? *gasp* she accuses the her boss of pulling a Christmas cracker before the senior partner! A co-worker has a “plummy Oxbridge accent” and wears sock suspenders! How dreadfully slanderous!

    If the cleavage was a the shocking part, maybe they should have disciplined her then and there for it, instead of waiting for it to show up in a blog entry. For that matter, what if she’d merely mentioned this while out at lunch with a friend, and the friend blogged about it? Is she still in trouble?

    Yeah, the internet is public media, and we should all keep that in mind when we post things–but the inverse is also true. Everything ends up on the internet, sooner or later.

  2. The only thing is this perception that our public representation of our private, non-work lives might reflect poorly upon our employers. But hell, that would be true of 99% of us, were we to faithfully represent our private, non-work lives.

    I’ve only come close to something that I think might be concerning to my employer once: when I complained about ISS science and didn’t think, until halfway through writing it, that all the contractor jobs that would be eliminated were from my company. I can see where that would look like sour grapes.

  3. she accuses the her boss of pulling a Christmas cracker before the senior partner! A co-worker has a “plummy Oxbridge accent” and wears sock suspenders! How dreadfully slanderous!

    Actually, I would think they would be a tiny bit more upset about some of the other items… maybe her blogging about getting intentionally drunk at the party in retribution for being made to return to work afterwards, or maybe the part about wishing she had more time at work to blog, or possibly the part about implying that her female French co-workers are bulimic.

    what if she’d merely mentioned this while out at lunch with a friend, and the friend blogged about it? Is she still in trouble?

    *shrug* I have no idea. She got in trouble because someone connected the dots, her boss found out, and he didn’t like it. Will that happen if her friend blogs about it? It’s probably less likely, especially if the friend doesn’t name her.

    I’m not being intentionally obtuse here. I understand what you’re saying. Should she have gotten in trouble? I’ll admit that dismissal sounds steep, even for the things I did mention. If it was me, I think I’d ask that the offending posts be taken down, and that would probably be it. In the grand scheme of things, this company probably got themselves in much worse trouble over the publicity than ever would have been caused by a few blog posts.

    So, I’ll get down off my high-horse a bit (does me good to get knocked down a notch or two every once in a while) and say that yeah, it was probably reasonable for her to be surprised at the severity of the reaction (thus negating my self-stated main point, oh well. *grin*).

    I still stand by my assertion that it should not be a surprise that a company takes some kind of action, and the option of dismissal is always there (severe though it may be). I also still see very little room for recourse in these cases. France/Britain (not sure which applies here given her citizenship and who she was working for) may have different laws, but I know that in my state, my employer doesn’t even have to technically have a reason to terminate my employment, and without some clear evidence of discrimination, there’s little I would be able to do. When it comes down to it, even she knew she would get in trouble if the connection was ever made. She said as much in one of her entries.

    So, I claim the right to restate my original point at will. It’s my web site, after all. 🙂 Why do people continue to be surprised when the secret gets out, and why do so many people (sometimes including the blogger) believe that these bloggers bear no responsibility for the consequences of their posts?

  4. Geof:
    You bring up another good point: I didn’t address the situation of an employer firing someone over a blog that mentions nothing about the employer or the job whatsoever.

    Let’s take the extreme. Let’s say my personal web log mentions absolutely nothing about my work or employer yet details a life away from work filled with actions, beliefs, and opinions that many people would find abhorrent? What then? What if I’m the model employee but my employer is worried that their clients will learn about my personal life and not want to deal with me?

    It ought not matter, but I think we all know better. The moral we come back to: the web is a public medium. Even Geof’s much less extreme version is very telling. If any of us let it ALL hang out, what might we expect?

  5. I think overall, this is classic example of the downside of freedom of speech… Whilst one has the right and freedom to express what is on his/her mind on a public medium, there is still that possibility of where some readers will be offended by the content… How the offended parties will react we may not know until they react…

    There is a very fine line between frivolous ranting and serious verbal shit slinging, but the biggest problem is that everyone has their limit and not everyone’s are the same…

    In the case of those who were sacked for ranting about their jobs, it’s the same deal but different variables in the equation…

  6. tiny bit more upset about some of the other items

    I missed those…are you pulling from a different source? Or was there a page 2 I missed? *checks* No, I don’t see it…

    What if I’m the model employee but my employer is worried that their clients will learn about my personal life and not want to deal with me?

    Oh, well, that’s a very clear cut case of discrimination, and could be easily fought, if it could be proven. The tricky thing about discrimination cases is proving the ostensible reason to be false.

    It’s not that I think she shouldn’t be surprised at her “secret” getting out–what secret? you’re absolutely right, it’s a public forum. It’s that, by the same token, I can’t imagine why the company should be surprised. Life is a public forum. People bitch about their jobs. People also blog. Ergo…whether she does it on company time or not (and yes, that’s a whole different story when it comes to grounds for discipline), she’s going to do it–out loud, or in print. Did they really think otherwise?

  7. whilst it is true that life is, figuratively speaking, a blog of its own, people can say or bitch whatever they want, but one must consider the fact that words on a public medium do have a cause/effect sort of thing…

  8. are you pulling from a different source?

    Yeah. The article picked some pretty lame examples. Mine came from the actual entries in her web log.

    Oh, well, that’s a very clear cut case of discrimination, and could be easily fought

    Really? Hmm… maybe the example has to go a step further and say that the employer actually lost business, and the client in question (the employee’s sales account customer) specifically mentioned said employee’s public writings as the reason. I don’t think the employer has to come up with an “ostensible” reason. Can a company be forced to keep someone on if they can show evidence of lost business? I realize I’m moving the target here and playing the part of the devil’s childhood best friend, but I’m enjoying playing with this discussion. I’m probably also drifting into territory ripe for being decided by the courts on a case-by-case basis.

    Life is a public forum. People bitch about their jobs. People also blog.

    Yes, but I argue that bitching to friends and bitching on a public blog are not equivalent for two reasons: range of distribution and the ability to unequivocably tie the statements on the blog back to their author’s identity. If I bitch to friends, that’s not likely to make it very far outside my immediate friends. Even if it does, it’s hearsay. If the employee writes up his bitching as an editorial piece that gets printed in the local newspaper, what then? I’m not saying the a blog is the same as a newspaper, but it could be argued (and has been argued, I’ll wager) that those two are a lot closer than blogging and talking to friends are.

    There is no clear single line here. I think most people would agree that telling some friends about your bad days at work should not be expected to result in dimissal. I think most people would similarly agree that buying 30 seconds on prime time national television to bitch about your job (whether or not you identify the name of your company) is likely to draw negative consequences. Somewhere in between lies that blog. When it comes down to it, the location of the line past which action will be taken depends on the employer. I think part of my point is simply that a public blog is perhaps a lot closer to that line than many people think it is.

  9. Can a company be forced to keep someone on if they can show evidence of lost business?

    Maybe not “forced,” but they can be sued up one nostril and down the other. Think about it…if a company employs, say, a black person (to take a REALLY obvious example), but one of their clients is run by, oh, say a KKK sympathizer, and this person demands the company fire the black person or they’ll withdraw their contract–don’t you think the ACLU would be all over that in a heartbeat? If the way the client found out about the black employee is through her personal blog, why would that make a difference?

    Now, naturally, the client isn’t going to come out and say, “Fire her, she’s black!” and the company isn’t going to say, “Oh, ok, you don’t like our black employee, right, she’s outta here.” So proving it hard–but if it can be proven at all, it’s an ironclad case.

  10. Joyous:

    Whew. Con prep is seriously eating my brain this week. Saw the comment on Monday morning, but I just haven’t had the brain cells to do anything about it until now. 🙂

    don’t you think the ACLU would be all over that in a heartbeat?

    Of course they would, but you have to admit you did pick a very special case there. Race discrimination is one of the forms of discrimination explicitly prohibited by the Civil Rights Act. Also, being black is not something that one keeps a secret at work yet reveals on a blog, and it’s not an action that someone chooses (thus why it so perfectly fits with the definition of discrimination).

    How about if you turn it around the other way? The employee (whose job is face-to-face sales) is the KKK sympathizer and his client is black. You begin to get into issues of ability of the employee to perform the stated duties of the job, and that question never came up before the blog entry revealed the employee’s leanings to the client. Was the blog entry itself the real issue? No, but the real issue was unknown to the concerned parties before the blog entry and equally as impossible for the employer to ignore after the blog entry.

    That’s an extreme case (as you said), and a lot of this obviously begins to get into areas where a court would have to decide on an individual basis. You’re absolutely right: the relief (if it were given) would not be to force an employer to keep an employee, but to cause the employer to pay damages.

    I keep coming back around to what I think is one of my fundamental points. The validity of any particular case is not really my argument. Neither am I arguing that the blog entry in and of itself represents an offense. However, it can make an offense (or a perceived offense) public in a way that an employer would have a hard time ignoring. It has more power to do so than talking to friends, and I think it has much more power to do so than many people seem to realize.

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