Don’t Read This Blog: A Meta-Analysis

April 9, 2008

Writing this blog, pseudononymous though I may be, comes with risk. It’s a great thing for me because I get to be self-reflective, honest, and detailed about my activities and thoughts, and I think that will make me a more successful person. It’s great for you because you get to see all things I’m doing right and wrong, and you can apply those lessons to your life. This type of blog is terrible for a company’s General Counsel, though. What if I say something that reflects poorly on the company? What if I give away a trade secret? What if I cause a major deal to fall through by writing to much about it too soon? For him, it would be better if you don’t read this blog.

The internet abounds with tales of misery for bloggers and their (former) employers; it’s almost enough to scare me away. Instead it made me curious. It’s one thing to say that blogging is risky, but it’s a whole different matter to understand and categorize that risk by analyzing all the major cases of blogging causing trouble, and discovering exactly, specifically what got those people in trouble at the time.

Generally Speaking

These two tidbits came from here through this other place — they can serve as a general warning.

  • You should have policies and procedures prohibiting Internet disclosures of confidential information and prohibiting employees from expressing damaging opinions or information about their employer, superiors or co-workers.
  • When blogging, employees shouldn’t be violating securities laws, disclosing the company’s intellectual property, disclosing any other employee’s personal information, disclosing confidential information, discussing work-related legal procedures and controversies, using other company’s copyrighted materials, or making false statements.

Lawyers Speak Latin

Ok, these may seem like common sense, but in the heat of the moment, I could write something that could be construed as “damaging about [my] employer.” Also, I plan to be frank about my working relationships because sugar coating it isn’t going to help anyone navigate the honestly treacherous waters of office politics. The advice, as bone headed as it may be, is worth bearing in mind.

Heather Armstrong

Heather Armstrong of was fired from her Los Angeles web design job when her employer found out about her writing. I’ve read some of Heather’s stuff; she has an acerbic, snarky tone that’s often quite funny. An excerpt from the ABC News Article I read about it:

“No names were used in her blog — not hers, her co-workers’, nor her company’s. But she was terminated after company executives were tipped off and read her posts, which included unflattering descriptions of many of them.

“What I was doing was completely benign,” Armstrong said. “I never mentioned any trade secrets. I never mentioned the company.’”

That’s a bit scary for me, because it sounds like the sort of thing I plan to do. There is a difference though: Heather writes about arbitrary topics and often writes for shock value. She writes things about “upper management’s staggering incompetency, in and out of bed,” “Dude, [Asian database administrator] is passed out. Let’s give him a wedgie,” and of course “Ignore the inane string of email from the Vice President of Spin to the Vice President of Enabling His Fist Up Your Ass, cc’d to everyone in the company because, really, what’s a cock fight without an audience?”

As charming as her antics are, my writing will be categorically different from Ms. Armstrong’s. My take away: do not gratuitously insult anyone in a business relationship… unless you are a witty writer who is already independently wealthy because of those insults. Hats off to Ms. Armstrong, well played.

No Smut

Amusingly (from the same ABC Article), “Jessica Cutler, who formerly worked as a lowly staffer for Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, shared no private office information on her now-notorious blog. On, she instead posted very detailed information about her sex life, some of which involved alleged trysts with high-profile politicians.” Note to self: no detailed information about my political sex life. Check.

Ellen Simonetti

According to this article one Ellen Simonetti, aka Queen of the Sky, was fired from Delta Airlines. The official reason was inappropriate pictures of her online, while wearing the uniform. If you’d like to see the pictures, start here. Hint: totally safe for work or small children rubbernecking. This is worth a nod for posterity, even if it doesn’t directly apply to my situation.

The list of bloggers who have been fired for talking trash about their bosses is long. Peter Whitney formerly of Well Fargo, Joyce Park formerly of Friendster (the irony!), and Drew Townson floated quickly to the top of the list.

Actually, Drew is a case worth mentioning. He didn’t talk trash about his boss – he didn’t even mention his employer at all, or mention his own name. He posted a few times about inane things, then posted pictures of his baby son. He passed the link to coworkers, who passed it to this boss, who promptly fired him, and here’s the moral of that story:

Your boss can fire you for anything

Not For use with Bosses

If you live in an employment-at-will state, as I do, then you can be fired for wearing out of season clothing, or parting your hair to the right instead of the left. You can live in fear, or you can do something about this. Two common threads in these stories:

  1. The employer wasn’t aware of the blog
  2. The employee wasn’t valued enough to be negotiated with

My solutions:

  1. Tell your employer about it before it comes to light on its own.
  2. Be irreplaceable to the company

This isn’t foolproof. Some people have an unreasonable boss. Some bosses aren’t bight enough to realize when they have an “irreplaceable” employee. My feeling is that if you are not in a place that you can follow those two suggestions, then you should be looking elsewhere. Maybe that’s naive, but I think you should always add value to your company, and never subject yourself to incompetence. A smart boss who respects you will respond well to this information. It will probably be a non-issue. It would be if I were in the driver’s seat.

Do the Numbers

Do the Numbers

My brilliant wife read a draft of this analysis and made me think about something painfully obvious that I missed. The simple question of how many people blog versus how many people have been fired for doing so.

In mid 2006 Technocrati seemed to think there were 50 million blogs. I have no way of knowing how many of these are active, so I’ll take what I hope is a conservative estimate and say there are 2 million active blogs. When I was trying to research people who had been canned from the jobs because of their writing, something interesting happened. The same names (most of which are mentioned in this very article) came up again and again.

Instead of being measured in percentages, the existing data seems to be anecdotal. Everyone mentions these examples of blogging-gone-wrong, but they seem to be the only ones. The high profiles cases are fewer than 20, the lower profile cases may number in the dozens. I’m not sure, but again I’ll offer a conservative estimate, that 100 people have been fired.

After consulting with my network of mathematicians, there is a consensus that those 100 people represent only .005% of all active bloggers. Even if there are only, say, 10,000 blogs which actually pose a risk of unemployment for their authors, the proportion is still only 1%.

This introduces another complication worth considering: maybe it’s not such a great idea to tell your boss about the blog and it could possibly be the case that it’s not worth the risk. Are working for the kind of company that might relieve you of your duties if they found out about your hobby? Are you writing extremely inflammatory material? In short:

Are you likely to be one of the .005%-1% of people who will be fired?

Check List

So here’s my complete blogging safety check list. If you follow all of these rules, you should be safe. I’ve put the most important rule in bold: if you do nothing but that, you have protected your future employment more than any other single measure you could take (other than not blogging to begin with).

  • Be irreplaceable to your employer
  • Tell your employer about your blog
  • No Confidential company Information
  • No Violation of Securities Laws (don’t give information that could be used for insider trading, unless you really enjoy wearing orange jumpsuits)
  • No exposing the company’s intellectual property
  • No discussing legal proceedings (until they are complete)
  • Do not gratuitously insult anyone in a business relationship

If you cannot follow these guidelines for your blog, then understand the risk you are taking. Plan to be fired. It shouldn’t matter anyway, if you are always looking!


2 Responses to “Don’t Read This Blog: A Meta-Analysis”

  1. […] Don’t Read This Blog: A Meta-Analysis « Don’t Read This Blog: A Meta-Analysis […]

  2. troutgirl Says:

    Hey Ken, I was also not fired for talking trash about my employer. I appreciate that you’re trying to help people use common sense, but I think it gives people a false sense of security if you give them helpful hints that are based on misinformation. 🙂

    My one piece of advice is to urge the COMPANY to state a formal blogging policy — or better yet a policy about how they don’t plan to interfere in any activity you might engage in outside of work, as long as that activity is legal and has no consequences to your work performance. That way the onus is on them to get out of your personal life.

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