Who Owns Your Words, Blogger?

Thomas Duff has a very interesting article today about Walking the fine line when blogging… wherein he talks about his view that anything he says in his blog also inevitably reflects upon his employer. As a result, he says that he tries to keep “that line” in mind and only post things that his boss would be okay reading.

This is a fascinating topic, and one that certainly engages the imagination and passion of the business blogging and, yes, general blogging community because it cuts to the heart of our relationship with our employer.

Here’s what I mean…

If you believe that your place of employment “rents your brain” for X hours each day, then it’s clear and obvious that when you aren’t at work, you can do whatever you want and write about whatever you want in a public forum, without the possibility of censure from your employer. If, on the other hand, you subscribe to the “I pay you, I own you” philosophy, then your private time isn’t quite as private as you may think.

I’m presenting this in a simplified fashion here for rhetorical purposes, but there are some serious legal issues that we’re touching upon. For example, if you work at a church but then attend pagan activities at night, can you be fired? If you believe that you can, then you’re falling into the ‘we own you’ camp, even if just a little bit.

If you think that it’s all completely independent and that what you do when you aren’t “on the clock” is your business, then would you say that, for example, a playground monitor who spends his evenings trading kiddie porn online has the legal right to retain his job even once the school learns about his predilections? Careful. If you say “until he’s shown to be a threat” you are flying in the face of many people’s heartfelt beliefs and various legal precedent too. If you don’t think so, what happens when someone applies for that same playground monitor job but discloses that they are in treatment for an addiction to child pornography? Can they legally be discriminated against in the hiring process?

But let’s bring this back to blogging. What I have carefully avoided so far in this article is the question of can you blog about work when you’re not at work and still expect the same rules to apply?

If I left my phone on “speakerphone” while attending a meeting so that a group of people not in the firm could listen in to the discussion, that’d be a clear violation of company privacy, right? If I went down to the local café after the same contentious meeting, stood up, and read a poem about what was discussed in the meeting while my friends snapped their fingers and stubbed out half-smoked Galoise on the table, that’d still be a violation, wouldn’t it?

Now, if I read a poem about how the meeting went and the futility of meetings, would that be something that would be wrong? And how about if I had my “Google”, “Intel”, “Department of Homeland Security”, or “FBI” employee badge on?

When I think about bloggers writing about their workday, I can understand that it’s an engrossing topic. As business wizard Tom Peters admitted today on the Worthwhile weblog, “Work is my Joy”. So of course you’d be blogging about your job, right? Or wrong?

I’d like to suggest that the line for most companies and most employers (the perspective I’m interested in as a strategist and business blogger) is whether there’s anything that can be deleterious to the business, can reflect poorly on the company, or can embarrass recognizable individuals. After all, if you want to get up and recite a poem about how you’re frustrated living in a cubicle, everyone will commiserate. But when you start talking about how your boss is an “a** in sandals”, I think it’s over the line. It’s disrespectful, unprofessional, and, most of all, reflects poorly on the company.

Even if you have your own blog or other venue divorced from your place of work, if you’re always talking about your work, people will figure it out eventually. It’s darn hard to be permanently anonymous in this new, digital, Googled age.

Should people have the legal right to post whatever they want to their weblog? Sure, absolutely, just as you have the right to say anything you want in a crowded room. Within certain limits of social norms (the classic: you can’t yell “fire!” in a theater and can’t say “hijack” at airport security without expecting some, um, dramatic consequences).

But here’s the rub: you have the right to say anything you want so long as it isn’t slander, but your employer also has the right to discipline you, ask you to cease and desist your work-related articles, or terminate you completely from the firm. The debate that I’ve read doesn’t seem to catch this distinction; everyone gets up in arms about the “first amendment rights” of bloggers to write about whatever the heck they want to write, without ever observing that employers have rights too, notably the right to expect circumspect, professional and appropriate behavior of their employees in the public eye.

This isn’t to say that you can’t go to a party, toss a few back, and then share horror stories about your job, talk about what a complete idiot your boss is, and throw darts at a picture of your CEO. Of course you can do that (though updating your resume and finding a job you like might be a better use of your energies). But that’s not the public eye, and unless your weblog is behind passwords and encryption schemes, you just can’t avoid the fact that anyone and everyone can read whatever any of us bloggers write.

This also isn’t to say that companies that exert too much control over their employee blogs might be focusing their attention in the wrong place: maybe the issue to address is why there’s so much going on that’s blog-worthy and embarrassing? Great companies, companies that are leaders in their industry, are exciting places to work and, if anything, their employees should be blogging about how great it is and how they’re thrilled to be part of the experience. But that doesn’t for a second mean that even the best company in the world doesn’t have the right and — if it’s publicly traded — perhaps even obligation to keep an eye on how the firm is portrayed in the online world.

To answer Thomas Duff’s question: the line is different if you’re in the public eye or in a public venue, but that line is one that is defined both by you, as the employee and blogger, and your employer, who has the right to dictate your behavior within those constrains.

This is a controversial topic: what right do you think employers have to control, limit, or censure blog postings from their employees?

4 comments on “Who Owns Your Words, Blogger?

  1. The employer owns the workspace and the job, not you. You can be fired from his place and his job at anytime for any reason – rude, stupid and loudmouthed employees should be fired, and often. Remember business owners, blogs are good ways to identify the vipers in your organization so they can be discovered and eliminated. Encourage blogging – muaa haa haaaaa!

  2. I think blogs are public documents, in terms of everyone being able to access and read them.
    I could see a ruthless competitor monitoring the blogs of people who work for a company, then, when weird, controversial, or inflammatory blog statements are discovered, using them against that company.
    “A certain employee of XYZ Corporation has a blog and in it he states repeatedly that he hates red ants. That’s insect racism. Thus, that company is full of kooks. You don’t want to do business with a bunch of wackos, do you?”
    So, right now I’m siding with Amy Gahran, who I think is concerned about the possible consequences to a company when an employee, even on their own time, and in a personal blog, blogs about things that might be detrimental to their employer.
    Blog Espionage is, or will soon become, a big activity for ruthless competitive corporations, IMHO. Wait and see if this pans out.
    Also, the reverse scenario: if the CEO of your company blogged, in a personal, non-corporate blog, about hating Jews, or blacks, or women, would you still want to work at that firm, and help his business succeed?

  3. I would think that stockholders would welcome employee based blogs that lift the curtain on shenanigans going on within an organization. Of course, the corporate gods wouldn’t like it, and bloggers need to accept the possibility of firing as the price of fighting for truth, liberty, and blogging for all.
    Often , the corporate misguidance that gets blogged isn’t stuff worthy of Sarbox attention – the CEO is sleeping with Gertrude from Accounting, the CFO passed out drunk at the Executive Retreat. Would you want to invest your money in a company that is led by someone who can’t even manage their personal life?
    Blog Espionage – vaspers the grate wrote it here first. It’s going to be the next great wave.

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