WEB LOGS and ‘blogging’ present employers — and their lawyers — with new workplace relations issues, but few are prepared to handle them and many have not developed policies addressing the issue.
‘Blogs’ are online diaries on which the blog’s owner posts information, comments and views which anyone may access. Blogging is a huge phenomenon in North America and is becoming increasingly popular in Australia where legal blogs or ‘blawgs’ are beginning to take off.
Blogging raises issues such as employers’ redress against employees who engage in blogging out of work hours, but who gossip about work-related matters. Blogging in work hours also raises some critical issues.
“Work-related blogging was once thought to be benign, but it is now one of the most complex and far-ranging issues in the workplace,” said Stephen Hirschfeld, CEO of the US-based Employment Law Alliance (ELA) and partner in the California-based firm of Curiale, Dellaverson, Hirschfeld & Kraemer.
Blog-related issues cover a broad spectrum well beyond concerns by employers over the web posting of company secrets, Hirschfeld said.
“For example, can the employer regulate off-duty blogging because they believe the content injures the company’s reputation, is embarrassing to a company, or disparages a company’s products, management or customers?”
There is intense debate about blogs, but no debate over the need to have clear blogging policies he said.
Around 5 per cent of the American workforce maintain a blog, and of that number, about 16 per cent admit to posting negative comments about their employer, colleagues or clients, according to an ELA survey.
In Australia, however, little appears to be known about the extent of workplace blogging, according to Stephen Price, partner and workplace relations practice leader at Corrs Chambers Westgarth.
“However, there are very similar issues for employers to consider and they should be looking at introducing policies to cover themselves against the dissemination of office diaries and other information that may not be commercial in confidence but is sensitive and/or private,” he said.
“Office gossip can be harmful if it is disseminated beyond the workplace, whether or not it occurs during work hours. Employers need to understand the ramifications and protect themselves.”
A vast number of bloggers are disgruntled employees who use their blogs to comment on their workplace, their colleagues and their employer. Clearly, this posed significant risks for employers, Price said.
There are a number of steps employers can take to minimise the adverse consequences of blogging, according to Price, such as ensuring that contracts of employment contain obligations to preserve an employer’s confidential information as well as clauses for abiding by EEO policies.
“Blogging that amounts to harassment of a co-worker will be a breach of an employer’s EEO policy and a technical breach of contract,” he said.
Employers should also ensure internet policies deal with blogging, consider conducting internet surveillance in accordance with the law, and use blocking software to bar certain blogging sites, he said.
Craig Donaldson is Editor of Lawyers Weekly’s sister publication, Human Resources.