Responding to Employee Blogs
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Responding to Employee Blogs

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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.

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