FAQ: Blogging on the job

Being a blogger can get you in trouble nowadays, at least if you write something that sufficiently vexes your employer.

Being a blogger can get you in trouble nowadays, at least if you write something that sufficiently vexes your employer.

Delta Air Lines last year fired flight attendant Ellen Simonetti because of her blog. Friendster, Google and Microsoft also have waved goodbye to employees or contractors who, in the opinion of a corporate manager, were unacceptably indiscreet in their online scribblings. As the popularity of blogs grows and search tools get better, such intracompany tiffs are likely to increase.

In an effort to separate fact from fiction, CNET News.com offers this list of frequently asked questions -- from an American perspective -- about blogging at work and at home. Feel free to contribute your own thoughts and experiences in the "talkback" section at the end of this article.

Can blogging hurt my career?
If you're already employed, your blog could get you fired. Delta Air Lines, Friendster, Google, Microsoft and Wells Fargo have all reportedly fired employees or contractors over the content of their online journals. In most cases, the bloggers were let go for either criticising the company or fellow workers, disclosing embarrassing or confidential information or otherwise offending the boss' sensibilities.

How risky is blogging really?
Blog firings are relatively rare. In a recent survey of 279 human resource professionals by the American Society for Human Resources Management, just 3 percent of companies reported disciplining bloggers and none reported firing anyone for blogging. You're more likely to get in trouble for fooling around online or downloading music at work. About half the companies in the survey said they've fired or disciplined employees for Internet use that was unrelated to work duties.

Blogging is a pretty new activity. Is my company likely to have guidelines and policies about it yet?
Few companies have created policies that specifically address blogging. But most corporate policies already address many issues related to blogs, such as protecting confidential information, upholding the company's reputation, and Internet use at work.

Can my employer fire me if I blog from home on my own time?
Yes. The odds of your company perusing your blog is slim. "But if your boss should see your blog and be offended by something there, in most [US] states you have virtually no protection against being fired," says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute in Princeton, N.J.

Wait -- does that mean that where I live matters?
Yes. California, New York, Colorado, Montana and North Dakota recently have enacted laws limiting when an employer can fire you based on something you do off-duty that's not related to your job. Note that blogging isn't singled out for special treatment in those state laws. "The broader issue is, 'Can your boss fire you for something you do in your private life he doesn't like?'" Maltby says. "In five states he can't. In 45, he can." (The Michigan legislature soon may consider a similar measure.)

That sounds pretty broad. Are there any limitations on an employer's ability to fire me?
Aside from the ones mentioned above, the general rule in the United States is that you can be fired for anything other than an impermissible reason such as your race, sex or sexual orientation. If you happen to disclose your religion or sexual orientation on a blog and you're fired as a direct result of that disclosure, you might have a case. Organising a union through your blog also is protected under federal law.

What about the First Amendment? Doesn't that protect me?
Not if you're working for a private employer. Read the text again: It says "Congress shall make no law" that abridges "freedom of speech, or of the press." That doesn't say anything about private employers. The First Amendment protects you only from censorial governments.

Are there any court decisions involving bloggers being fired?
A Lexis search through federal and state cases didn't turn up any to date.

What if I'm a union employee? Do I have more protection?
Yes. Union employees generally are protected from being fired without "just cause." Translated, that means you would have to do something pretty evil on your blog -- like divulge confidential company information.

How about if I'm a government employee, for example, in the federal civil service?
"A government worker who's at home maintaining his or her own Web site doesn't lose their rights simply because he or she is a government employee," says Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union. But Steinhardt cautions that if you're spending a lot of time at work on personal business such as updating your blog, that's a different matter.

Can high school students be disciplined for the contents of their blogs published from a home computer?
Students at government-run schools have been disciplined for this kind of activity before, but the school district may back down when lawyers get involved. "A high school student who produces electronic speech off-campus ought to be protected," Steinhardt says. "If you're using the school's computers, it's a different matter."

Can I blog anonymously?
Of course. If you do that, though, and ruffle enough feathers, your company could file a "John Doe" lawsuit in an effort to unmask you by sending a subpoena to the blog hosting company. Annoying the federal government could also be trouble. In a September 2004 opinion, one federal judge wrote: "The FBI theoretically could also issue a (secret request) to discern the identity of someone whose anonymous online Web log, or 'blog,' is critical of the government."

To shield yourself from lawsuits and other legal worries, posting to your blog through a service like Anonymizer.com might be a safer choice.

Do all companies consider blogging an activity unrelated to work?
No. Some companies view blogs as a good marketing mechanism and encourage employees to create them. If that's the case, it's reasonable to update your blog on the company clock. Check with your manager if you're unsure of your company's policies. If blogging at the office is OK, you should still be clear about how much time your boss expects you to spend on it. If your blog is strictly extracurricular, do it in your spare time.

Does that mean blogging could boost my career?
The chances that someone will find your blog are low. Only 3 percent of companies read job candidates' blogs before deciding whether to hire them. That said, as blogs become more noticeable, they could help or hurt your career, depending on what you write. Highly personal information could turn a prospective employer off, while non-personal commentary that shows off your job-related expertise might impress someone.

Has blogging helped anyone land a job?
Yes. Robert Scoble said blogging helped him land a gig at Microsoft a couple of years ago. A Microsoft executive became a fan of Scoble's tech-focused blog and eventually hired him from NEC. Scoble said the blog's honest observations, including some criticisms of Microsoft, helped win over his future boss.

Marketing consultant Elisa Camahort used her blogging habit to launch a writing career. The Santa Clara County Democratic Party pays her to write its blog, and a weekly Silicon Valley paper has hired her as a food columnist. She advises job-seeking bloggers to forgo the dear-diary approach and write instead in an informed way about topics they are passionate about -- politics and culture, in her case.

Are there some examples of high-profile workplace bloggers?
Yes, some companies have embraced blogs as a powerful communication tool, and some top executives now publish blogs. Examples include: Jonathan Schwartz, president of Sun Microsystems; Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks owner; Bob Lutz of General Motors; and Microsoft's Scoble.

Are there any blogs about workplace blogging?
Yes, there are several concerning blogs as a marketing tool. Here are a few:


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