Blogging when the water cooler will no longer do

Special to The Times

When it comes to blogging in your office, lawyer Mike Oliver has a basic premise: Don't point and click too fast.

"If you're the employee and you're upset because you didn't get a raise or you're not getting along with your boss, the inclination now is to post your unhappiness on a blog," said Oliver, who has taught cyberspace law at the University of Maryland and is formulating a blogging policy for his nearly 40 technology-based clients. "But I find this highly dangerous for the employee."

When the Internet came of age in the mid-1990s, the first problem employees encountered was with e-mail, when some workers who circulated messages with incriminating information were fired.

Now blogging is a new source of employer-employee trouble. Typically blogs, short for "Web logs," are opinionated and personal posts on the Internet. They can take on a diary-type form and often feature frequent updates.

Blogs can be about mundane topics, such as the fact that a new vending machine popped up in the cafeteria. Or they can be explosive, containing nasty commentary about co-workers and sometimes even corporate secrets.

"Clearly, in the last couple of years, blogs went from being an unknown to the point where everyone seems to have one," said Rebecca Jeschke, spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is made up of lawyers and activists who focus on electronic media. "It's become ubiquitous."

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, there are nearly 8 million blogs. Other organizations claim the number could be as high as 20 million.

Though not all of those blogs are work-related, many deal with workplace issues. And in an age in which search engines such as Google pick up nearly everything and anything found on the Web and can transmit it around the globe in a matter of seconds, there's good reason for companies to be concerned, Oliver said.

"With blogging, everything is indexed and Googled," said Oliver, a lawyer with Bowie & Jensen in Townson, Md. "That's how a lot of people have gotten messed up from this."

Most companies are worried about being burned, especially if employees post negative or confidential information about the company.

Employees who work for high-profile companies such as Wells Fargo, Delta Air Lines and Starbucks have been fired for posting items including revealing photos and negative comments about upper management on their blogs.

Wells Fargo's code of ethics covers blogging and other electronic forms of communication, a spokeswoman said. Workers are expected to "exercise the same standard of professionalism for Web publishing" as they do for other forms of written communication.

Microsoft Corp. encourages its employees to blog, and boasts that nearly 2,000 employees do so.

Oliver would have companies adopt a policy of requiring employees to inform their supervisors of any company-related content in their blogs. If there is positive news to report, most companies usually don't have a problem with them.

The second part of his policy would take more of a "don't ask, don't tell" form. If an employee wishes to blog about something that is not work-related, he shouldn't let his boss know about it.

Still, even though there are methods employees can use to hide their identities online, Oliver said it's wise for workers to avoid posting negative comments about their companies.

"I cannot fathom why any employee would want to do that," Oliver said.

There is a new term for people who try to reveal serious problems at a company online: whistle-blogging.

"Most companies would like to see themselves in the best light possible," said Kurt Opsahl, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "The companies with the most flexible policies seem to have the most open, honest blogs. The ones with restrictive policies will have blogs that read like press releases, and no one will want to read them.

"The concern is that if you let the blogs have open information, someone will write something that the company won't like, but it's really a trade-off."

Several websites tell bloggers how to avoid trouble with their bosses by providing information on blogging anonymously. The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently won a case in the Delaware Supreme Court that protects a blogger's right to blog anonymously. "That was a big win for free speech," Opsahl said.

But bloggers beware: Even after a website is taken down, its information still could have been printed, copied or e-mailed, giving it a life beyond the Web.

"There is a lot of existing law about what employees can and can't say about their employers," said Teresa LaMaster, assistant dean for technology affairs at the University of Maryland School of Law. "What is different about blogging is that it makes those public statements worldwide in a matter of nanoseconds."

But, LaMaster said, just when employees and employers start thinking that blogs are all bad, they might want to reconsider. Blogging could be positive, if done in an appropriate way. Retailers who want to get the word out about a new style of suit might opt to blog. Filmmaker Michael Moore created a blog to promote "Fahrenheit 9/11." Blogs can be used to get uncensored information out about a company.

"When you think about blogs at first, employers might think, 'We aren't going to want employees to do this,' " LaMaster said. "But forward-thinking companies might want to do this -- if they can harness this opportunity."

This article first appeared in the Baltimore Sun, a Tribune Co. newspaper.

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