A recent poll conducted by the Employment Law Alliance suggests that 5% of workers may be maintaining Internet blogs, but only 15% of employers have specific policies addressing work-related blogging. A “blog,” short for “web log,” is a website that operates as an Internet diary or journal and allows its patrons to communicate openly about their personal thoughts and opinions in a way few other mass media have been able to do – with a promise of anonymity. Although some bloggers reveal their identity and work title, many identify themselves only through pseudonym.
For employers, blogging raises concerns about employee productivity and a variety of issues that arise if and when bloggers use their blogs (which are viewable by anyone with access to the Internet) to discuss their job duties, supervisors, fellow employees, and others. The assumed anonymity of cyberspace may lead employees to make less-guarded comments about themselves, work, and even customers, that they ordinarily would not make during face-to-face conversations or even e-mail.
Banking organizations are particularly subject to “reputation risk” issues, regulatory confidentiality requirements, securities law disclosure concerns, and customer privacy concerns. The issues that can arise as a result of employee blogs which involve the bank or its customers can be significant and can involve civil and criminal penalties. It is critical that banks adopt appropriate policies regarding bank and customer confidentiality which include rules addressing the relatively new concept of employee “blogs,” make employees aware of the policies, and strictly enforce those policies throughout the organization.
Questions Employers May Be Asking about Blogging
In light of the above concerns, employers likely have questions about what action they can take. For example, can an employer: Refuse to hire an applicant based on a blog posting?
- Discipline or terminate employees for posting confidential or proprietary information?
- Discipline or terminate employees for posting damaging, offensive, harassing, embarrassing, or negative information about the employer or a fellow employee?
- Discipline or terminate employees for posting criticism or satire about the employer, co-workers, managers, supervisors, or clients?
- Regulate off-duty employee blogging?
The answers to these questions depend upon the circumstances surrounding the blogging activity, as well as state and federal law. For example, in certain circumstances, federal labor law and laws protecting employee whistleblowers may shield bloggers from retaliation or liability for blogging.
Therefore, employers must be careful about regulating blogging activities or disciplining employees for blogging. Factors that may affect how an employer responds to blogging by employees include:
- Is the employee using the employer’s equipment or his/her own personal equipment?
- Is the employee blogging at work or at home, or during work hours?
- Does the employer have a blogging policy in place and did the employee violate that policy?
- Does the employer have other employee conduct policies in place that the employee has violated with his/her blogging activities? If yes, how have employees been disciplined under that policy in the past?
- Is the employer private or public, unionized or non-unionized?
What Can Employers Do?
Employers should promulgate clear policies that directly address blogging activities by employees. A blogging policy should both educate employees about proper blogging etiquette as well as set rules and boundaries. For example, a blogging policy can and/or should remind employees of the following:
- Blog only about what they know.
- Do not blog at work, on work time, or using the employer’s equipment.
- Give credit where credit is due.
- Identify themselves on their blogs and, if they blog about company-related matters, make clear that they speak for themselves and not the employer.
- Adhere to their responsibilities regarding the employer’s confidential and trade secret information, including customer information.
- Comply with the employer’s discrimination policies and policies regarding respectful or proper treatment of co-workers, managers, the employer, and employer’s clients.
A blogging policy should also reference other policies potentially implicated by blogging activity (e.g., harassment policy), and put employees on notice that violations may lead to disciplinary action, up to and including termination.
In addition to a policy, employers should provide employees training about blogging and the employer’s blogging policy. Employers may also monitor the Internet for employee blogs and perform Internet searches to uncover references to the employer in blogs. Employers should consult with legal counsel, however, when drafting a policy and before taking disciplinary action against employees for any blogging activities.
Benefits of Blogging
Despite the negativities associated with blogging, there can be benefits to employers as well. In fact, many companies have set up their own company blogs to serve as open forums for employees to air grievances and raise suggestions in a way that is easier to monitor than general Internet blogs. To the extent employees are happy about their workplace, blogs can be an effective way to garner support and enthusiasm for the employer.
Company sponsored blogs can also be an effective marketing tool for employers, including banking institutions, as they may allow a bank to tout its employees, market its services, and receive customer feedback. They may also serve as a helpful forum for public discussion of banking-related topics.
Whether workplace blogging is negative or positive for banks, they must be prepared to deal with the issue. Having a blogging policy, providing training on the policy and perhaps hosting a blogging website are three proactive steps to respond to this new phenomenon.