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Dangers of blogging

I'm sure those of you who care about such things will be aware of the travails of La Petite Anglaise, the blogger sacked by her employers (the Paris branch of British accountancy firm Dixon Wilson) for, well, blogging. Most commentators have been pretty sympathetic, and so am I. She had never once identified herself or her employers on the blog, and never ever referred to the substance of her work (though did refer to two or three humorous work incidents, this supposedly being the cause of her dismissal). Most of her blog entries concerned life as an expatriate single mother, her relationships, and the usual stuff, told in a very human way. I am not a regular reader, but have skimmed from time to time.

There are lines between professional and unprofessional conduct that can be (and sometimes are) crossed by bloggers, and La Petite in my view stayed scrupulously on the right side of them. I'm delighted to read the analysis of French legal blogger Eolas (here and in more detail here) who reckons that Dixon Wilson don't have a hope in hell of winning the employment tribunal case she has taken out against them. The ironic thing is that she was sacked for bringing the firm into disrepute through her blog; in fact their sacking her has resulted in far more negative publicity, with articles in all the main British papers, than the blog on its own would ever have achieved no matter how vitriolic she had chosen to be.

One cannot help but feel, as Eolas put it (and I translate freely), that Dixon Wilson panicked at the discovery that a member of their secretarial staff had a) a private life and b) a brain.

There are better ways of dealing with this than Dixon Wilson's approach. About a year ago I disovered a blog written by an intern in a politically sensitive line of work, which talked perhaps a little more freely about the office environment than was wise. The line manager of the intern happened to be a friend of mine, so I took it on myself to mention the matter over drinks one evening; the relevant blog entries have now disappeared, but the intern got a full-time contract, so I assume that a request to take down the relevant entries was made and acceded to. That is what Dixon Wilson should have done; requested that the relevant entries be removed, and let her off with a caution. (Having said that, she might well have been within her rights in French employment law to refuse such a request, but it would have been a more sensible approach.)

And my advice for bloggers - switch to a system where you can post but lock your entries, such as livejournal. Though even then (as a recent incident on my f-list confirms) you have to take sensible precautions...

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( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
bennmorland
Jul. 25th, 2006 06:59 am (UTC)
One cannot help but feel, as Eolas put it (and I translate freely), that Dixon Wilson panicked at the discovery that a member of their secretarial staff had a) a private life and b) a brain.

LOL Touche'.
slovobooks
Jul. 25th, 2006 07:25 am (UTC)
The ironic thing is that she was sacked for bringing the firm into disrepute through her blog; in fact their sacking her has resulted in far more negative publicity, with articles in all the main British papers, than the blog on its own would ever have achieved no matter how vitriolic she had chosen to be.

Yhis is exactly the same thing that happened with Joe Gordon and Waterstones, as you might recall.
nwhyte
Jul. 25th, 2006 07:34 am (UTC)
Not quite - while I have every sympathy with Joe, and certainly Waterstones should not have gone to the lengths of sacking him, he was much more overt about identifying his employers and criticising them in public. So there are important differences between the two cases.
slovobooks
Jul. 25th, 2006 07:38 am (UTC)
Yes, absolutely. I meant from the point of view of bringing the company into disrepute, they did themselves far more damage than the employee had done, if indeed they'd done any.
(Deleted comment)
greengolux
Jul. 25th, 2006 08:15 am (UTC)
I think there was a clause in his contract that stated that he shouldn't publicly bring the company into any disrepute. So he was technically fired for breach of contract.

As to why any company would feel the need to include that kind of clause in a job contract (which may have been what you were asking), well, that's another question...
bopeepsheep
Jul. 25th, 2006 09:26 am (UTC)
I'm explicitly forbidden from blogging about my job, as it happens - it's in my contract. ISTR Waterstone's had the same clause even when I worked for them more than five years ago.
(Deleted comment)
nwhyte
Jul. 25th, 2006 10:41 am (UTC)
In a lot of jobs it's entirely reasonable to say that your ability to do the job effectively will be hampered if you publish your side of your day-to-day disputes with management (let alone your day-to-day disputes with people you manage) for all the world to see. Certainly it's the case with my job.
(Deleted comment)
nwhyte
Jul. 25th, 2006 04:56 pm (UTC)
C'mon, if it actually hampers your ability to do the job effectively, then it clearly is your employer's business.

Your two examples are at opposite extremes. If I ran a factory, I certainly wouldn't hire someone who declared their own propensity to indulge in sabotage, and I think I'd be in my rights not to do so (I take it that you're not in fact likely to be seeking such employment in future anyway). On the other hand, your right to union membership is clearly enshrined in legisislation and international treaties, and arguably one of the goals of your strike was precisely in order to be able to do your job more effectively in future.

My livejournal is readable when I'm at work and when I'm not at work. When I'm at work, I depend (to a certain extent) on my colleagues to back me up in public on sensitive political issues. If I'm slagging them off in public blog entries, that is certainly something my employers have a right to take an interest in, no matter what time of day I write the entries.

And I'm not the only one. Most of us who are involved in office work of any kind are privy to confidential dicussions about our interlocutors inside and outside our own organisation, and to the unfolding detail of policy discussions whose resolution could have significant commercial or political implications. Do you really believe that the employer's interest in the employee posting public blog entries about such material should be limited merely by the time of day at which it is done?

Joe Gordon was (by the merest hair) on the wrong side of this line, in my view; Waterstone's should have asked him nicely to take down the relevant entries, and he should (and by his own account would) have done so. La Petite Anglaise was definitely on the right side of the line; she did not identify her employer and gave no commercially sensitive information about them, apart from the fact that the senior partner (who ultimately fired her) was rather British and old-fashioned (which I would have thought rather a plus point if I were in Paris and looking for an Anglophone firm to do my auditing).
raycun
Jul. 25th, 2006 07:41 am (UTC)
AIUI, she was also found working on her blog during working hours (twice, once after being discovered and warned). Which shouldn't be a big deal - is there anyone anywhere in the world that uses the office internet for work purposes only? - but is a breach of office policy.
nwhyte
Jul. 25th, 2006 08:21 am (UTC)
I don't think that is the case, actually. If you read her account, and the letter of dismissal, it's pretty clear that there had been no previous warning - "Nous avons très récemment découvert avec surprise l'existence d'un site internet de type "weblog" (plus communément appelé blog) dont vous étiez l'auteur" - and their evidence that she was doing it during working hours is entirely based on the fact that she said so in the blog!
raycun
Jul. 25th, 2006 09:09 am (UTC)
Okay, I was just going on a comment here http://www.sarahcarey.ie/2006/07/19/la-petite-anglaise/#comments

But she said on her blog she did it during working hours?
nwhyte
Jul. 25th, 2006 10:17 am (UTC)
"Laura" was clearly April Fooled by an entry from last year.

"Said" - not explicitly; though some of the time-stamps are certainly during working hours. I'm sure her employers never ever write personal emails or make personal phone calls during working hours...
raycun
Jul. 25th, 2006 11:22 am (UTC)
Oh sure, no-one anywhere ever does.
'Breaching the company's Internet policy' is the kind of thing that can be used on anybody (except for everybody I know, naturally). I suppose the other side of that is that if everyone is breaking the rules, but she's the only one who gets called on it, Dixon Wilson is in trouble.
agirlnamedluna
Jul. 25th, 2006 11:58 am (UTC)
Apparently, what she also said was that while other employees were reading a book during down time, she used the computer to write a blog. So it did not interfere with her work process.
matgb
Jul. 25th, 2006 09:06 pm (UTC)
Which I find perfectly fair; my employer knows I've written stuff from work at times, but only ever when I was between tasks or when I made the time up.

Agree with Nick; it's done more damage to their reputation now than anything she could possibly have done before.

Also agree with various other bloggers I've seen commenting, she's far too god a writer to not write professionally.
strange_complex
Jul. 25th, 2006 09:54 am (UTC)
I just wanted to say that I'm very grateful you keep an eye out for this kind of news, and post it in your own blog. I'd probably be a lot less aware of the issue if you didn't, and I'm sure I am more cautious as a result of reading similar posts by you in the past.

I'm probably still not quite as cautious as I really ought to be, given that a lot of my capacity to do my job effectively rests on establishing a sense of authority with my students, and some of my posts could undermine that if they read them. But I'm at least attempting to compromise between caution and keeping as many posts as I can public (which is important to me in itself for other reasons).
agirlnamedluna
Jul. 25th, 2006 12:03 pm (UTC)
I understand that an employer does not want certain things to be open on the net. Like f.e. sensitive product information, crisisses, etc. can be bad for business. There's a reason we're not getting any sensitive information in your blog about your work - the process would seriously suffer under it would it be read by people who can take advantage of it.

However, I don't think she did that in her blog, at least not from what I heard about it in the news ( I never read her blog before ) so I think it's really an infringement on her privacy. but it appears employers want to go to great lengths to control their employees now. The internet *is* a dangerous tool for this - where else than in a blog or on MySpace can you find private information about your employees? The sad thing is they do not consider whether she (or anyone else) still does a good job or not despite what she does outside the work hours -- that *is* none of their business and seriously, maybe they should be glad she does not go out getting stone drunk every night? And even that would be her own business if it does not interfere with her capacity to do her job well.

I hope she wins in court.
pgmcc
Jul. 25th, 2006 01:11 pm (UTC)
I have been involved in two dismissals of personnel for e-mail and Internet abuse. (For obvious reasons I will not mention the company I was working for. Those of you who know me and know where I have worked will put 2 and 2 together and get 5, and be right.)

The first case involved an employee who sent a joke by e-mail to a supplier company. There were several points in this. Firstly, the e-mail was sent during working hours from a company PC using the company e-mail system. Secondly, the joke was absolutely filthy. Thirdly, the supplier complained to the shareholders of the company. Fourthly the sending of personal e-mails and the sending of profane material by e-mail was explicitly prohibited in the company Internet & E-mail usage policy which stated that infringement of the policy could lead to dismissal. Fifthly, and this was the critical point that made the dismissal legal, it was proven that the individual had received a copy of the said Internet & E-mail usage policy.

The other case was a person who spent their entire day logged onto the Big Brother website. Apart from the systems information clearly demonstrating that, yes, she had been logged on all day, for several days, and that she was doing precious little else, there was evidence, and even complaints, from her colleagues that supported the case. The in-house security cameras also supported the case.

Again, the fact that she had received, and in her case acknowldeged by signature, the company Internet & E-mail usage policy, was crucial when it came to court.

The latter case led to the total removal of Internet access to the entire company and the implementation of an approval process requiring a person's manager to make a case for an individual to have Internet access. Such cases were then reviewed by a shareholder and approved or otherwise. I was with that company for three years after the latter incident and when I left there were thriteen people in an office population of 600 who had approval to use the Internet.

The key point is that dismissal was permitted if it could be shown that the individual had acted against stated company policy, that they had been provided access to the policy statement and that the policy statement indicated that infringement could lead to dismissal.

nwhyte
Jul. 25th, 2006 04:57 pm (UTC)
Very interesting - thanks!
xipuloxx
Jul. 25th, 2006 01:16 pm (UTC)
switch to a system where you can post but lock your entries, such as livejournal. Though even then (as a recent incident on my f-list confirms) you have to take sensible precautions...

That sounds worrying...could you tell us more? I rarely lock my posts, largely because I rarely say anything sensitive in them (when I even make any!) but on occasion I've found the need to. Now I'm slightly worried that those might not be as safe as I think...
pgmcc
Jul. 25th, 2006 01:23 pm (UTC)
Especially with electronic media, you should assume that the last person on Earth you want to read your text will see it.
nwhyte
Jul. 25th, 2006 03:51 pm (UTC)
Ah well, the incident in question was someone who had just moved in with her boyfriend, and wrote a somewhat disparaging entry about him which she thought was friends-locked; somehow (don't know the details, probably she just forgot to log out of livejournal) he saw the entry and, guess what? they split up and she's moving out. This probably happens all the time...
xipuloxx
Jul. 26th, 2006 12:28 am (UTC)
Ah, right, thanks. I don't post anything "confidential", just certain things I don't want to be made public knowledge (e.g. my phone number) and that's really all I use f-locking for. As far as I know, that makes it safe from anyone but hackers, and honestly, why would they care? Unless of course someone else uses my computer and I haven't logged out, in which case it's my own fault...
nickbarnes
Apr. 1st, 2007 09:54 am (UTC)
A few times in the last year, entries which I have thought were f-locked turned out not to be so, and this has caused some additional distress in an already impossible situation. Probably user error on my part. But I essentially agree with pgmcc's advice: always be prepared to deal with the consequences of anything you write or do on a computer (whether or not you think it is 'online') appearing in the most embarrassing possible place (e.g. the front page of the New York Times; your child's desk, your child's teacher's desk; your spouse's inbox). It probably won't. But nothing you can do will absolutely guarantee that it won't, and most things that you think improve the security in fact do nothing of the sort. Such a guarantee would require that you trust your computer, and your organisation's computers, and your colleagues, and all the computers and staff at all the organisations through which your communication might pass. Trusting a computer requires you to trust the manufacturers of the hardware, the creators of the software (which for many of us include Microsoft, a convicted monopolist with a long history of making hopelessly insecure software), and all the people who have ever had physical or remote access to the computer since it was manufactured.
That's not to say that there aren't things you can do to reduce the risks: if this concerns you then the first thing you should do is to consider your threat models (who might want to spy on you and how much is it worth to them). The second thing you should do is to stop using all Microsoft products.
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