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Blogged Out of a Job
Few Firms Have Rules but Posters Be Warned

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 19, 2006

The number of bloggers continues to grow, but the number of workplace policies explaining the company's rules on blogging remains anemic. And that can cause a lot of workplace angst for both management and workers.

Although there are no real statistics on how many people have been fired for something they wrote on their personal Web logs, the stories keep coming:

A reporter in Dover, Del., was fired earlier this month for offensive postings on his personal blog.

He was just added to the list. Remember "Washingtonienne," the intern who embarrassed her bosses on Capitol Hill when she described sexcapades with unnamed staffers? There was also "QueenofSky," a Delta flight attendant who was fired after she posed provocatively (she meant for it to be funny, she said) in her uniform. A Microsoft employee was canned after he posted a picture that included Macs the company had purchased. And of course there is blogger Heather B. Armstrong, who was fired in 2002 from her Web design job for writing about work and colleagues on her site, Dooce.com. That's where bloggers get the now-popular term, to be dooced: to be fired because of one's blog.

According to a survey done by the Society for Human Resource Management in July, 85 percent of companies do not have a written policy that provides employees with guidelines on what is acceptable to write about in a personal blog, while 8 percent do.

But do companies really have to write a policy to explain something that might seem a no-brainer?

Quite possibly: Another survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management said that 3 percent of 278 human resource professionals in early 2005 said they had disciplined workers for blogs.

With more than 8 million blogs -- and growing -- in the United States, employers will find themselves dealing with issues related to personal blogs, just as they scratched their heads a decade ago when they tried to decide how to deal with employee e-mail and Internet usage. (More than likely, your company has a policy regarding those tools.)

Employers are unprepared for blogging's impact, according to the Employment Law Alliance, a network of labor and employment law firms. It conducted a telephone poll of 1,000 adults in January that found about 5 percent of American workers maintain a personal blog, while only 15 percent of employers have a policy that directly addresses blogging.

That concerns Stephen J. Hirschfeld, a labor lawyer and the chief executive of the alliance, because companies could find themselves in sticky litigation if they fire someone for what he wrote on his blog.

"Both in respect to blogging or other non-blogging activities, you have to put employees on notice of dos and don'ts," he said.

The poll also found that 59 percent of employees believe employers should be allowed to discipline or terminate workers who post confidential or proprietary information concerning the employer, while 23 percent of employees would support a fellow worker who criticizes or jokes about employers, co-workers, supervisors, customers or clients.

Meanwhile, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, 7 percent of human resource professionals read job candidates' blogs to gather information on them before the company decided whether to hire them.

But my guess is that number is actually much larger. Anything people write in a blog is public information -- that is, after all, the whole point. Even if they write under a pseudonym or if they write a blog on their personal time, their bosses or co-workers can easily find their online musings. And many employers and potential employers do spend time trolling the Internet for mentions of their company or their own names, particularly in blogs. (Do you Google someone before a first date? I thought so.)

Then, if something unseemly comes up, that person might not get a job. Is that legal? Absolutely. For the most part, unless a company is practicing discrimination based on race, sex, gender or national origin, that company can pretty much fire -- or not hire -- anyone for any reason. Even for items posted on a personal blog.

But, of course, not all blogging is a potential problem. Hirschfeld himself advises companies to not write a "draconian policy that prohibits" blogging. Those powers can be used for good, after all. This is evidenced by the fact a growing number of companies host space on the company Web site for company bloggers. The thought is these people are interested in the company and its products, and unless they reveal secrets, their blogs can be great marketing tools.

Tim Donnelly, a self-titled propagandist and stuff coordinator with Aquent Creative in Los Angeles, a staffing firm, started a company blog in July. Microsoft and Sun Microsystems had created similar spaces for such blogs, and they seemed to have a positive impact on business. Aquent decided it was time the company do the same.

Donnelly's blog ( http://aquent.typepad.com ) has resulted directly in more business, he said.

"We get a lot of visits each week," he said. "And we have gotten a couple companies who have come to work with us just because of the blog. Which means, then, I guess it works."

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