The Waterstone’s Controversy

By on January 12, 2005

The Woolamaloo Gazette: This guy got fired for his personal blog. He worked at a bookstore in the U.K. and, as he puts it:

Anyone who has been a regular reader of the Gazette will know that I do occasionally mention my work life, although it accounts for a fraction of my written output. Like many folk I am not always happy at work […] and me being me when I mention bad days or annoying occurrences I do so in my own satirical, sarcastic, comedic style.

I often put many things into a basic narrative form, add characters etc. So I would coin terms such as “Bastardstone’s” and have a character called “Evil Boss” (my equivalent to Dilbert’s Pointy Haired Boss — in fact I compared head office directives to being in a Dilbert cartoon). I once referred to a chum and former colleague, Olly, when he found a full time IT job after his graduation as being a successful member of the Escape Committee at work.

The A-list blogs are rushing to this guy’s defense, and everything I’ve read on the subject is heavy on “free speech” and “individual rights” and such. The author even brought this up as his “disciplinary hearing”:

I pointed out once more that I was outraged that a company seemed to think it had the right to tell an employee what opinions they could articulate in their own time.

The entire narrative he gives about his firing is very long and detailed. It makes a fascinating read.

What do you think about this? I’m torn. While I’m very much in favor of free speech, I also believe that you shouldn’t write anything about anyone that you wouldn’t say to them should you discuss it face-to-face. Especially when that person is writing you a paycheck.

Example: the bookstore was called “Waterstone’s.” At least once, apparently, this guy called it “Bastardstone’s” in his blog. Would he have called it this in a personal discussion with the owner? If not, then why write this on a Web site accessible to several billion people?

There’s a tendency, I think, to wrap blogging in the flag of freedom and individual rights. But things you write still have personal implications. Just because you have the wonderful, God-given right to put something down in text doesn’t mean that it isn’t going to piss someone off.

If I found out that someone had made a name like that up for my company and relayed it to others, either in person or — worse yet — on a public Web site, would I be pissed? Well, yeah, I really think I would. Especially since he was an 11-year employee. That carries weight with people, since veterans are assumed to know the organization better than anyone. If this guy, who has worked there for that long, feels the need to say things like this, then it must be true, right?

This happened to me early last year, as some of you long-time readers might remember. I made fun of a job posting that someone put on the Web. Shortly after, I got a phone call from the attorney of the company. I pulled the entry down, and, in retrospect, I don’t think there was anything they could do, but I got to feeling bad about it. The attorney asked me, “What did we do to you?”

It’s true — what did they do to me? Yes, I legally had the right to post what I did, but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t going to irritate someone. I ended up taking the entire blog down for six weeks while I mulled over the consequences. Would I have said that if the guy was standing right in front of me? Probably not, and if I did, it wouldn’t be with near the vitriol that made it into my original post.

The bottom line is that things you put on the Web have real-world implications, no matter how much you get all wrapped up in the “blogosphere.” Yes, this thing we do is great fun, but we’re not doing it in a bubble, and there’s no “ramification-free zone” in which we can throw around whatever opinions we like.

I feel badly that the guy is out of a job, but there’s just no way I would have written about my employer in the way that he wrote about his. Not if I expected him to keep signing my paycheck, anyway.

Feel free to discuss.

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Comments

  1. Rob says:

    I agree with you here Deane. If you wouldn't say to their face, don't publish it. The free speech aspect doesn't apply. Free speech is something the government grants you, not your boss. It doesn't mean that everything you say is without consequence. If you write or say something that has the potential to damage your employers bottom line I would say they are perfectly within their rights. They can't retract your statements, but they can eliminate your ability to gather additional material.

  2. Matt C says:

    It's hard to find the perfect answer to this. On one hand, I'm not comfortable with a company terminating an employee for something he said on personal time. But on the other hand, in the litigious world we all live in, there needs to be clearly defined policies regarding what employers do and don't find acceptable. It also depends on the nature of his employment. If he was employed "at leisure" where he could be terminated at any time for any reason, then yes, the company is in the clear, although seemingly very Grinchy. If his terms of employment stated that the employer had to show cause for termination, I'm not sure this would be enough to fire him, especially with his history of being a bottom-line enhancer for the store. I do think a warning is the proper first step in cases like these.

    I have a job. I have a blog. I occasionally write about my job on my blog, but I am very careful to be as vague as possible. The workplace is never named. Employees are never named. A lot of this has to do with the fact that I work in a public school, and there are privacy act issues at play in regard to students - who aren't even mentioned in posts at all. In addition, I run a little disclaimer at the bottom clarifying that these posts are my thoughts and opinions, no one else's.

    This is actually a bigger issue that most people think. For more interesting "I got fired for my blog" readings, check out dooce.com, queenofsky.journalspace.com, and rights.journalspace.com

  3. Deane says:

    I guess in my mind it just comes down to basic respect for the organization who puts food on your table. Making comments like this among friends is one thing, but to publicly disparage your employer? Yes, I know it was partially in jest, but you run the risk that your employer doesn't have a sense of humor, as is apparently the case here.

  4. Mark says:

    Wow. I think this is the first time that I've read a blog that hasn't immedialy jumped to Freedom of Speech. The line, "...things you write still have personal implications" is dead-on. If you want to do an expose (blog, print, tv, whatever), that's your right; but don't expect the company you're doing the expose on to give you a hug (or a paycheck) when it's all over with.

  5. Fed up with whiners says:

    Oh for crying out tears. When will people start to understand the basic concept of the First Amendment (that's freedom of speech for all you USA Today readers). While it's true your 1st amendment rights mean you can say what you want, the don't say you are not held accountable for what you say. If this were true, the law for yelling "Fire" in a crowded theater would be considered unconstitutional as it directly applies against it. You can say what you want....but please wake up and start taking personal responsibility for it.

    /rant off

  6. Deane says:

    While I agree with your comment, your crack about the USA Today annoyed me. Read this:

    http://www.deanebarker.net/wp/60

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