Careless blogs cost jobs

You may think you're just letting off steam but what you write online about your employers could cost you dear. Do bloggers have any say? Michael Pollitt investigates

Joe Gordon knows what it's like to be dooced. He is one of a small but growing number of bloggers whose lives have been changed by it. In the strange world of urban slang, being dooced means losing your job for something you wrote on your blog or website.

Joe Gordon knows what it's like to be dooced. He is one of a small but growing number of bloggers whose lives have been changed by it. In the strange world of urban slang, being dooced means losing your job for something you wrote on your blog or website.

Surprised? Don't be. Getting fired for what you've said about work has happened before. A bad day at the office, a remark overheard in the pub and, before you know it, your job is on the line. What makes Gordon different is that, rather then simply making an ill-considered aside to a colleague, he commented about his working conditions for months before his employer found out and he was dismissed.

Gordon's Woolamaloo Gazette (http://woolamaloo.org.uk) brought him into conflict with Waterstone's booksellers. Shortly before Christmas, he was called to his manager's office and informed of an investigation for gross misconduct. "I was suspended on pay and escorted from the premises of the bookstore I had worked in for 11 years," Gordon wrote. He was dismissed in January for bringing the company into disrepute.

Gordon first started the gazette as a satirical newspaper in 1992 (the name comes from a Monty Python sketch) in the form of an e-mail. "I like writing and I like expressing myself," he says of the decision to blog. "It's an interesting way of interacting with people. The blog was mostly stuff of the 'I'd had a crap day at work' variety." Not surprisingly, however, his descriptions of the company as "Bastardstones" and "Evil Boss" failed to humour his employers. Luckily, Gordon's story has a happy ending. As a result of the publicity, he now has a new job in Edinburgh with the specialist book and comic seller Forbidden Planet.

But not everyone is so lucky. Jason (who wants to remain anonymous) was dooced after he was found to have written a blog while working for a financial services company. "I've always written a journal, like a diary," he says. "I've done that for over 10 years. But writing it down on paper just wasn't working any more." So he opted for a blog.

Jason's former blogs can be accessed, with a little rummaging, at http://jgramdooced.blogspot.com. The offending blog is highly personal, sometimes shocking and often hilarious. It documents his interests in football, music, going out, his worries about his exams and his work.

To write about work and his colleagues was probably foolish. Mentioning his bosses in an offhand, derogatory or critical way was even riskier. But it was only when he named his firm's clients that Jason was finally called to see the boss. "I went into work and was suspended for a week, pending a hearing," says Jason, who suspects that it was a client who found the blog late last year.

After the hearing, he was given a starkly worded dismissal letter that said his "personal website" contained content of an "inappropriate nature". Added to that, it was suggested that references to employees, partners, and clients were "severely prejudicial" to the firm's good name. He was eventually fired for gross misconduct. The hearing also accused Jason of not devoting histime and attention to his duties during working hours.

Why take the risk? "I didn't start out blogging about work. It just naturally became included," he says. "I think the blog was fairly balanced and makes some good points about my job, points that previously fell on deaf ears ... Blogging just became a form of catharsis and the best way of dealing with work stress." And the dismissal? "I do think it was heavy handed."

His former employers say they were "very shocked, saddened, and disturbed by the discovery of Jason's blogging". After taking legal advice, the firm says, the dismissal was justified because Jason "breached client confidentiality and was also very rude about one of the partners". Because serious statements were published, a warning was not sufficient. "Employees must not breach client confidentiality. This was placed in the public domain and was totally unacceptable," the firm says. "We believe both employers and employees should be brought up to speed on the dangers that this sort of behaviour can bring."

Finding a new job was hard and Jason found it difficult to explain his unusual dismissal. However, he's now working in another industry. "My new job is a lot closer to my heart than the job I was dismissed from. But, put it this way, I won't lose any more jobs because of a blog."

The message is clear. If you write a blog, think carefully before you mention work. Clare Griffiths, a partner at the London-based legal firm Be, says: "Most employment contracts will contain sweeping confidentiality clauses to ensure that any information relating to the employer gleaned by the employee in the course of employment must be kept confidential... By writing a blog, the employee publishes their gripes in a way that is accessible by the employer and admissible in court proceedings." In other words: stick to mouthing off in the pub in the company of close mates, because the Human Rights Act offers small comfort for those who breach confidentiality or damage reputations.

It's also important for employers to devise blogger strategies. Adriana Cronin-Lukas, a partner in The Big Blog Company, is an ardent blogger who also helps companies set up blogs. "I want employers to understand that employees are individuals and they have their freedoms," she says. "If the company doesn't have a blogging policy, it's very hard for employees who have personal blogs. If an employer has a very strong opinion about blogs, then they should have a policy and give bloggers a chance to decide for themselves."

Blogs are growing in influence within and beyond the "blogosphere". But most bloggers are not aware of the dangers they face when casually turning in what they think is a harmless account of their day at work. No matter how well intentioned, the blogger is usually the loser. And bloggers and employers clearly need to understand each other better before the word dooced is heard more often.

www.michaelpollitt.com/blog

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