Blogging phobia hits employers

Instead of banning it, use it to your advantage
By Annie Massey
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/26/2005

Employees taking liberties with company information and reputation in their web logs (blogs) have led to a few highly publicized dismissals — and a heightened sense of alarm among some employers.

In the first wave of response to these stories, some employers have scrambled to blog-proof their organizations. Such a response was quickly followed by the realization that trying to ban blogs in the workplace is as futile as trying to ban water-cooler chats or personal phones calls.

Employers should consider two questions: Can they ensure that employees use blogs appropriately? How can blogs be used within the workplace?

The power to connect people

Blogging makes use of simple software that allows people to write and publish their own websites without the need to be programmers. The technology behind blogs is nothing special. However, the ability for people to find each other’s blogs and create links provides an astonishing multiplier effect. Some bloggers have become amateur reporters, fuelling a trend known as “citizen journalism” or grassroots journalism. Many mainstream journalists have their own blogs.

Blogs can also rapidly connect people for social reasons. The pan-Asian tsunami of December 2004 spawned many blogging initiatives. Within hours, blogs created by ordinary people were easily found through Internet search engines, adding to a mushrooming network of resources and information about the disaster.

Do citizen journalism and social networking have any relevance to the workplace? Yes. Just imagine the impact of communication between CEOs and customers or employees.

In some organizations, employees use blogs to seek expertise anywhere in the company and collaborate with colleagues more effectively.

Helping employees get it right

Despite recognizing the advantages of blogging, many employers are concerned that employees, unwittingly or otherwise, may damage the company’s reputation, leak confidential business information or poorly represent the organization on a personal blog.

Some employers have gone so far as terminating employees. Probably the best known example is Mark Jen. He was fired by Google in early 2005 after he posted comments in his personal blog alluding to the financial strength of the company and suggesting that some of the company’s perks were “thinly veiled timesavers to keep you at work.” In this case, as in others that have been widely reported, the dismissed employee seems to have been tripped up by his own inappropriate behaviour — not by blogging, which was simply the medium used.

Yet it is the ability of blogs to rapidly reach a wide audience that is key to understanding both the potential and the pitfalls. The indiscreet comment or leaked financial figure may go further and faster by blog than over the backyard fence. This possibility has led some employers to consider whether they should try to control employees’ online behaviour.

What’s emerging is the realization that a heavy-handed approach is unlikely to succeed. Instead, many companies in the vanguard of blogging are opting for guidelines that provide employees with positive encouragement and specific tactics so they can blog without causing themselves — or their employers —any grief. IBM, Cisco and Sun Microsystems, all of which have employees and senior executives who blog as routinely as they brush their teeth, have debated the need for blogging guidelines. They have chosen to trust employees and apply a light touch, on the premise that blogging is expected and even welcomed.

In the Google case, the employee was believed to be terminated because his comments violated his non-disclosure agreement, an existing company policy document. Blogging guidelines can provide a timely opportunity to remind employees about their terms of employment, non-disclosure agreements, or other standards of expected professional behaviour that are already in place. Whatever the existing policies say about protection of confidential and proprietary information, intellectual capital, and legal and financial information, applies to blogs just as it does to any other channel.

Who should develop the blogging guidelines? At IBM, blogging guidelines were developed in 10 days by a team that included active employee bloggers, working together with the legal and communication departments. IBM guidelines remind bloggers that the company considers them “personally responsible” for their posts. They remind employees to take responsibility for what they say by always identifying themselves in their post, and by writing in the first person to “make it clear that you are speaking for yourself and not on behalf of IBM.” The full guidelines are available on IBM’s

website

. Recently, IBM reported that 3,500 employees have their own blogs.

On his

blog

, Fredrik Racka compares corporate blogging guidelines developed by eight different employers. He notes four core rules: “you’re personally responsible; abide by existing rules; keep secrets; and use common sense.” Several guidelines ask employees to observe copyright, cite and link to any borrowed sources, and to inform their managers about their blogs. Because these guidelines have been widely publicized in the blogging community, they serve as prototypes to which many employers may turn. The general tone is supportive of blogging and assumes employees are adults who can figure out how to behave appropriately.

When the CEO wants to blog

Several CEOs have taken blogging one step further. Jonathan Schwartz, president and COO, Sun Microsystems; Michael Hyatt, president and CEO, Thomas Nelson Publishing; and GM vice-chair, Bob Lutz approach near celebrity status with their willingness to converse directly with customers and other audiences through their widely read blogs. It makes a company seem open, credible and genuinely accessible.

Should CEOs adapt this approach with employees? In many companies, senior leaders communicate by sending bulletins that are pushed down to the rank and file through e-mail or the intranet. For the employee at the end of the line, there is precious little opportunity to obtain clarification, understand the big picture or to have a voice with leaders up the food chain. Yet good communication from the top is a key dimension of engagement according to

surveys

conducted by Mercer Human Resource Consulting.

Blogging can play a key role in enhancing communication, but it is important to remember that blogs won’t work if they are just a different pipeline for the same old memos. To be successful, CEOs and senior leaders who blog must have a good track record in communicating confidently and openly with employees. Leaders who turn employee town halls into lively and engaging sessions, who handle questions from the floor with ease, are more likely to succeed at engaging employees on a blog.

Likewise, a blog must be current and timely. A leader who can dash off a short post in the airport lounge will likely make a good blogger. A leader who views blog entries as a tiresome add-on, or who requires a full-time ghost writer, is unlikely to come across with any personality.

While blogging may be a stretch for some leaders, the practice is catching on. Love them or not, blogs are here to stay. It’s worth learning how to harness their potential and to use them to open up communication channels right across your organization.

Annie Massey is a communication consultant and e-specialist at Mercer Human Resource Consulting. She can be reached at annie.massey@mercer.com or at (416) 868-2981.


Communication lapses damage engagement

Senior leaders who “communicate effectively and build trust” are among the top four drivers of employee engagement, according to Mercer Human Resource Consulting’s What’s Working Survey conducted in Canada and globally. The survey included a specific set of questions about management communication. Canadian respondents in the 2004 survey included 394 employees from a broad cross-section of industries weighted to represent the Canadian workforce.

The findings on engagement should have employers rushing to analyse what programs they have and to measure how effective employees perceive them to be. Looking more closely at what drives engagement, the results found that employees want more effective delivery of internal communication.

Among our findings are:

•fewer than half (48 per cent) of employees trust management to always communicate openly and honestly;

•only one in two employees say sufficient effort is made to get the opinions and thoughts of people who work in their organization; and

•barely half (55 per cent) of employees say that management’s behaviour is consistent with the organization’s values.

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