Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Tuesday 11/1/2005Ah yes, those blasted blogs. A few months ago, an outing to see "American Splendor" led directly to an urge to buy the comics on which the film was based.

Tuesday 11/1/2005
Ah yes, those blasted blogs. A few months ago, an outing to see "American Splendor" led directly to an urge to buy the comics on which the film was based. After much fruitless enjoyment in various Edinburgh bookshops, we ended up in Waterstone's -- you're ahead of me now. We lucked onto a sales assistant who not only knew what we were on about, but knew the books in question. He vanished for a few minutes and came back with armfuls of options, picked out the perfect selection for the enthusiastic novice and relieved us of a large slice of the week's gin budget.

This never happens in bookshop chains. Certainly not in Edinburgh Waterstone's, which celebrated 2005 by sacking the man -- Joe Gordon -- for blogging vaguely disrespectful things about his boss. You've probably read the details and they don't need repeating here: the only thing I can add is that on my experience the management should have done everything in their power, up to and including scattering rose petals before him and ringing silver bells as he passed, to keep him manning front of house. Do book shop managers actually feel physical revulsion at the thought of selling books, or do they just behave that way?

Joe Gordon's sin is woefully slight as provocation for such wanton company foolishness, but he does seem dangerously innocent about one of the primary rules of corporate life: do not make your boss look silly to their boss. Calling them names in public will do that.

There is much talk about whether this affair gives companies unreasonable control over what their staff do after hours, and many megatherms of hot air is being expended over freedom of speech, civil rights, self-expression and so on. I don't think so.

In the middle of last year Corinne Maier, a French worker and part-time author wrote a book called Bonjour Paresse -- Hello, Laziness -- in which she painted a most uncomplimentary picture of French business culture, gave directions of how to get on while doing as little work as possible, and gave a new spin on the Peter Principle. That states that people get promoted to their level of incompetence: Mme Maier pointed out that incompetents then get put where they can do no harm, viz. senior management.

Unsurprisingly, her employers (Electricite de France) decided this was a bit off and put her through the ringer: the resultant publicity made them back off and her very famous. Or take Scott Adams, who caricatured his own experiences of corporate farce so effectively that his telecom employers could pretend it was nothing to do with them. Nobody has said in either case that freedom of speech was being perverted by bureaucratic paranoia: Maier didn't care and Adams knew his politics.

You cannot in general slag off your employers and get away with it. Ask David Blunkett. You can do it if you disguise it or yourself well, or if you don't publish until you've got another job lined up. Blogs are just a very efficient, low-cost way of demonstrating these facts.

And sacking brilliant staff for the misdemeanour of poking fun at bad management is a very efficient way of demonstrating another fact: Waterstone's doesn't deserve anyone's custom.