Responding to Employee Blogs

Today, about 70,000 new Web logs — or blogs — are created every day, according to blog search-engine and measurement firm Technorati. In addition, a 2005 Pew Internet and American Life Project report indicated there are more than 32 million blog readers.

HR leaders may be stunned to read what some former employees, current employees, and even potential hires are saying on blogs about various companies. And depending on the size of their companies, such leaders may also be surprised at how many competitors and customers are blogging about their products or services.

The question then becomes what to do when unflattering or damaging comments are discovered, such as when:

* A health-care worker blogged about being able to surf the Web for three hours since the company’s server went down;

* An employee criticized his boss for not permitting the employee to go home sick one day;

* A flight attendant posted a provocative photograph of herself in uniform without a visible company name or logo; or

* A computer worker posted a photograph of his company’s loading dock receiving a rival’s shipment of computers.

In all of those cases, the employers opted to fire their workers.

Negative comments can affect competitive advantage, reputation, retention and recruitment. This is an evolving area that requires HR to step up and protect their companies. HR leaders need to assess the situation in their companies and create a business plan to respond to this complex, emerging arena in risk management.

Employee Blogs

A survey of corporate marketing and communication professionals released at BlogOn2005 — a conference produced by Guidewire Group, a San Francisco-based global research firm focused exclusively on emerging technology markets — revealed that 55 percent of corporations are blogging, mostly for internal communication. Many companies also permit external bloggers, ranging from CEOs to line workers, in an effort to reach new customers.

But what about employees who are blogging anonymously — or at least, unofficially. HR leaders should assign someone to monitor Internet chatter about their organizations, and sourcing agencies, such as eWatch, or IBM’s Public Image Monitoring Solution software, can help with that effort. Another way to find these comments is to visit Google’s home page, click on the “More” button, then click on “Blog Search” to plug in your corporate name.

Depending on the state, employees have a duty of loyalty to the employer, as an agent of the company. That duty extends to keeping proprietary material a secret, and refraining from defaming and even criticizing the company. Absent a worker’s viable claim under discrimination or whistle-blower statutes, the fired employee usually has little recourse against the employer.

The matter becomes more complicated when the blogger is anonymous. The law is still evolving over whether a company can compel an Internet Service Provider, such as Yahoo, to produce the name of the anonymous poster. In general, the First Amendment protects anonymous speech on the Web. However, the court will balance these rights against harmful or untruthful speech, in determining whether to allow a company to subpoena the ISP to produce the name of the poster. If the revealed person turns out to be an employee, the company can then determine its course of action.

Allowing employees to blog is a decision largely based on a company’s culture and its willingness to give up some control of its corporate message, in an effort to create Internet buzz. Blogs can inspire loyal readers if a company insider blogs candidly about the place of work, its culture, and products or services. This activity connects the customer to the company in a way that traditional advertising means fall short. On the other hand, there is an understandable trepidation of having employees writing about the company and its officers.

The core question becomes whether to restrict blogging activities both on and off company time, or to permit such activity with limits. The latter course of action may be risky, but the company could experience increased profits with a forward-thinking approach to the Web as a vehicle to promote the company’s visibility.

HR’s Strategic Map

For the purposes of this strategic map, assume that the company has an employee who writes a personal journal off company time about her daily adventures at work and has no written corporate blogging policy.

HR then needs to:

* Assess the employee’s blog content: Does it reveal trade secrets or contain defamatory information? If so, contact in-house or outside counsel immediately. If it is merely a personal diary, read it carefully to determine if there is any damaging or disrespectful content, and whether other employees are posting comments.

* Conduct research: Go on the Web and look at some existing blogging policies. For example, Yahoo’s Personal Blog Guidelines were “developed for Yahoos who maintain personal blogs that contain postings about Yahoo!’s business, products, or fellow Yahoos and the work they do.” [See SIDEBAR – CREATING A BLOGGING POLICY below]

* Innovate: Understand your corporate culture and craft an outline of a blogging policy tailored to your company’s unique needs. The good news is that many blogging policies exist on the Web, so the company will not need to re-invent the wheel.

* Create a business plan to juggle and redirect limited resources: Be prepared to answer difficult business questions about the allocation of money and personnel to implement and sustain this endeavor. Will it be cost effective to justify this diversion of resources? Take off your HR hat and place yourself in the role of those who make these difficult corporate decisions.

* Recruit allies: An effective blogging policy requires input from risk managers, the IT department, and counsel. Ask yourself how you will assemble these people to consider your proposed policy.

* Promote ethical conduct: Initiating a dialogue about blogging is another opportunity to discuss ethical conduct in the workplace, such as the importance of guarding trade secrets and other proprietary information, and promoting respect among co-workers.

* Sell HR’s continual value as point people: Be prepared to implement a blogging policy, educate employees, monitor blog activity, gauge employee morale and enforce the policy.

No matter the company, reputation risk management has become increasingly vital with the advent of the Internet. In the past few years, blogs have both enhanced and damaged company reputations. In a dual effort to minimize reputation risk and exploit the vast business potential of blogging, HR can step up and take a lead role in examining policies relating to employee blogs, in partnership with other key company personnel.
first published in HR Executive, may 2006)

Sidebar: Creating a Blogging Policy
HR leaders need to play a strategic role in developing a blogging policy. Here are some guidelines.

Yahoo’s Personal Blog Guidelines permit employees to blog about the company within parameters: Employees understand up-front that they are personally liable for their inaccurate or defamatory statements, and that proprietary information is off limits.

Its policy promotes respect for colleagues, and encourages blogging employees to notify their managers that they blog. However, Yahoo clearly states that employees are not required to inform managers of blogging posts.

To summarize, a policy which permits blogging must:

* Prohibit the dissemination of trade secrets;

* Restrict the posting libelous material; and

* Inform employees about the legal parameters of their actions.

From my perspective, HR leaders need to have a dialogue with company executives to consider whether a policy that permits blogging would be beneficial. The positives of such a policy include:

* The potential to drive business to the company;

* The need for employee guidance on permissible and impermissible activities in an Internet medium that blends personal and work activities;

* The decreasing likelihood that critical comments about the company will be posted anonymously; and

* The increase in employee morale, as workers perceive extra freedom in their work lives (conversely, overall morale may decrease if employees are fired or disciplined for blogging, in the absence of specific policy guidelines).

For the company that decides to prohibit any blogging about the company, it is equally important to delineate permissible and impermissible activities for employees. A caveat for companies which permit no blogging about the company: If you discover a current employee posting critical commentary to a blog, consider the ramifications of terminating the once dissatisfied employee, as he or she morphs into a highly motivated disgruntled ex-employee, with many more things to blog about.

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