can't violate the privacy and publicity rights of another; can't personally attack employees, authors, customers, vendors or shareholders and can't post material that is hateful or embarrassing to another person....
Warning: Your clever little blog could get you fired
By Stephanie Armour, USA TODAY
Like a growing number of employees, Peter Whitney decided to launch a blog on the Internet to chronicle his life, his friends and his job at a division of Wells Fargo.
Then he began taking jabs at a few people he worked with.
His blog, gravityspike.blogspot.com, did find an audience: his bosses. In August 2004, the 27-year-old was fired from his job handling mail and the front desk, he says, after managers learned of his Web log, or blog.
His story is more than a cautionary tale. Delta Air Lines, Google and other major companies are firing and disciplining employees for what they say about work on their blogs, which are personal sites that often contain a mix of frank commentary, freewheeling opinions and journaling.
And it's hardly just an issue for employees: Some major employers such as IBM are now passing first-of-their-kind employee blogging guidelines designed to prevent problems, such as the online publishing of trade secrets, without stifling the kinds of blogs that can also create valuable buzz about a company.
"Right now, it's too gray. There needs to be clearer guidelines," says Whitney, who has found another job. "Some people go to a bar and complain about workers, I decided to do it online. Some people say I deserve what happened, but it was really harsh. It was unfair."
Wells Fargo declined to comment, but a spokeswoman said in an e-mail that the company doesn't have a blogging policy.
Blogs are proliferating as fast as a computer virus. According to a report this year by public relations firm Edelman and Intelliseek, a provider of business-intelligence solutions, about 20,000 new blogs are created daily, and an estimated 10 million U.S. blogs will exist by the end of 2005. Together, these blogs link up to create what is known as a blogosphere, a collective Internet conversation that is one of the fastest-growing areas of new content on the Web.
More than 8 million adults in the USA have created blogs, according to two surveys by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a non-profit research center studying the Internet's social effects. And 32 million Americans are blog readers — a 58% jump in 2004.
Recognizing potential risks
Employers are just beginning to wake up to the potential risks that blogs pose.
"The law is trying to catch up with the technology," says Allison Hift, a telecommunications and technology lawyer in Miami. "This is like what we saw a few years ago with employers passing polices about e-mail. Now we're seeing it with Web logs."
The concerns are myriad. Employees who create blogs set up a direct way to communicate about their company with the public, because customers and clients can stumble across a blog. (Blogs often jump to the top of search engines because they are updated often.) Bloggers may spill trademark or copyright material on their sites, they may post pictures of yet-to-be-released products, and they may libel or slander another employee or a client.
A blogger can even get the ear of Congress. Douglas Roberts, a computer scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., started a blog (lanl-the-real-story.blogspot.com), and anonymous posters blasted management as incompetent. During a House subcommittee hearing in May, the blog was mentioned in a discussion about the fate of the nuclear research facility.
"I was quite surprised. I had no idea it would be this popular," Roberts says, adding that lab management has been supportive of his blog and that he believes blog policies in general are unnecessary.
Says lab spokesman Kevin Roark: "Open, honest, constructive discussion of issues is a good thing ... (but) the personal attacks were unnecessary and disappointing."
A number of employment lawyers, such as Hift, and bloggers, such as Whitney, are urging companies to enact guidelines and communicate blogging rules to employees. Some companies are doing just that: In May, IBM unveiled blogging guidelines for its 329,000 employees. The guidelines state that employees should identify themselves (and, when relevant, their roles at IBM) when blogging about IBM.
"You must make it clear that you are speaking for yourself and not on behalf of IBM," the guidelines state. They also say bloggers should not use "ethnic slurs, personal insults, obscenity, etc." and that they should "show proper consideration" for "topics that may be considered objectionable or inflammatory — such as politics and religion."
Others such as Microsoft have no formal guidelines specifically on blogging, but do encourage blogging as a way for employees to reach out to customers and clients. Says Jeff Sandquist, a group manager at Microsoft: "It's great. It's instant feedback. ... We give a lot of support to blogging and on how to be a good blogger."
Stifling free speech?
But it's tricky. Some civil libertarians fear blogophobic companies may adopt policies that stifle the free exchange that has made blogs so popular.
"The concern is that it becomes a chilling effect," says Annalee Newitz, a policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil liberties organization dealing with high-tech issues. "We don't want people to feel like ... they can't express their feelings."
Others argue that more explicit guidelines are needed.
"Companies probably need separate policies," says Robert Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Association.
Guidelines, some bloggers say, could even help save jobs. When Ellen Simonetti started her blog chronicling her life and work as a Delta Air Lines flight attendant, she posted some pictures of herself on her site, queenofsky.journalspace.com. There's a shot of her in her blue uniform, bending over an airline seat as her white bra peeks out. A shot of her backside. Another of her in her uniform, sprawled across the tops of the seats of an empty plane. Another shows her eating in a seat.
In October 2004, Simonetti, 30, of Austin was fired, she says, for the pictures on her blog. She has filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying the suspension amounted to discrimination, because male employees with similar online photos were not disciplined. The EEOC case is pending.
"Companies should have policies so that we know if we're breaking the rules," says Simonetti, who is unemployed. "I feel I was mistreated and treated unfairly. I'm fighting for bloggers' rights and free speech."
A Delta spokeswoman declined to comment.
Some bloggers are adding disclaimers saying they don't represent the company, or they are taking precautions not to blog from work. That may be wise: A Society for Human Resource Management survey found that some employers also are looking at job candidates' personal blogs before hiring them.
Legal status unclear
Blogging is so new, lawyers say it's unknown how courts will rule as cases come forward. Bob Blackstone, a Seattle-based employment lawyer, says employees may argue that blogs fall under federal laws that protect labor-organizing activity. They may also argue that their blog content is allowed under certain state laws that bar employers from discriminating against workers for off-duty actions.
Cases continue to climb. Heather Armstrong was fired in February 2002 by the Los Angeles-based software firm where she worked after venting online about the company on her blog, dooce.com. Some excerpts from her blog: Take a two-hour lunch: one hour for the bean burrito, one hour for the nap in the front seat of your car.
Reasons I should not be allowed to work from home:Too many cushiony horizontal surfaces prime for nappage. ... I can lie down underneath my desk, and no one is going to know. No one.
Her case garnered attention and put the blogging world on notice. UrbanDictionary.com now defines "dooced" as losing your job for something you wrote on your online blog.
Both sides now
And Mark Jen, 22, of San Francisco started his blog in January to chronicle his life and new job as an associate product manager at Google. He wrote comments about future potential products and lost his job two weeks later, he says, because of his blog, 99zeros.blogspot.com.
"I figured it would be an easy way to keep in touch with friends and family," Jen says. "I was surprised at the reaction of the company. It was shocking to me."
At his new job at Mountain View, Calif.-based Plaxo, a consumer Internet service for updating and accessing contact information, Jen recently helped draft the company's first-ever blog policy. The policy says, in part, that employees can't violate the privacy or publicity rights of another, can't personally attack employees, authors, customers, vendors or shareholders and can't post material that is "hateful or embarrassing to another person."
Employees who don't follow the guidelines can be fired.