Employment policies often must adapt to changes in culture and technology, and the explosion of blogs is one such example.
Blogs are short for Web logs, a person's stream of consciousness commentary published on a Web site. Bloggers may provide "you are there" coverage of events or blather on about any subject (or no subject).
Some employers have embraced blogging as a way for employees to collaborate, create or spread the word about the organization.
But other employees fill blogs with less than productive content. Disgruntled employees have used their blogs to attack current or former employers, spread gossip about co-workers or even publish suggestive pictures of themselves. (Delta Airlines fired a flight attendant because her "Queen of the Sky" blog revealed a photo of her wearing her uniform and lounging on airplane seats in a racy pose.)
The question is: When should employers step in, and when should you leave employees alone to blog in peace? Ask yourself these three questions:
1. What kind of employer are you?
Are you a public or private employer? It makes a big difference when discussing First Amendment rights.
Private employers can limit employees' speech about the company or working conditions, in most cases. Public employers, because they're governmental entities, can't abridge First Amendment rights unless the employee is breaking some law, such as revealing classified information or violating specific conduct rules.
Secondly, does your organization sponsor a blog? If so, is blog access limited to employees only? Any blog that will discuss confidential information, trade secrets or information that could affect company stock prices should be confined to employees or even. Don't allow a blog to become a security hole.
Finally, are you a union or nonunion employer? In a nonunion shop, employees are guaranteed the right to discuss work conditions freely with an eye toward unionization. So, employers can't prohibit bloggers from discussing work conditions as long as they do not reveal confidential information.
2. What kind of blog is it?
Employer-run blogs obviously allow you full control over the blog's content. But beyond that, the picture becomes murkier.
If you allow employees to write on their personal blogs during company time, you may have more control over content.
The most dangerous situation is employees who blog on personal blogs on personal time. For such cases, it's wise to draft a policy that lays out discipline for employees who use their blogs to reveal confidential company information, attack co-workers or harm the organization's reputation. (For more blog policy tips, see box below.)
Recent case: A medical-related company fired an employee who used her "Diva of the Disgruntled" blog to expose confidential patient information. A state agency fined the company $200,000 for the disclosure.
3. Does the blog's content involve whistle-blowing?
Employees who wish to shine light on their employers' illegal practices no longer need to meet reporters in dark parking garages. They can do so via their blogs.
Whistle-blowing, whether done by blog or any other means, is a protected act under federal law and several state laws. Employers risk legal trouble if they attempt to silence employees for revealing illegal employer activities.
Still, employees who blog about employer business walk a tightrope. While they can reveal illegal activities, they risk running afoul of confidentiality rules and SEC regulators.
Whistle-blowers would be better served taking their claims to law enforcement personnel, but employers may be limited when it comes to silencing a blogging whistle-blower.
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