Blogging policy is everyone's business

WEB logs, or simply "blogs", have enjoyed explosive growth over the past couple of years, with some sources claiming that around 80,000 new sites are appearing every day.

Considering the broad reach and virtually cost-free nature of this exciting new medium, it is not surprising so many businesses are keen to join the scrum by publishing corporate blogs of their own. However, in the egalitarian world of the "blogosphere", a positive account of company life is no more likely to win loyal readership than the personal blog of an employee. So, what steps can businesses take to ensure employees' personal blogs do not undermine that hard-won and carefully-managed corporate reputation?

The first high-profile conflict between a blogger and their day-job hit the headlines back in 2004, with a series of "fictional" postings about Anonymous Airlines, flying out of Quirksville. The skies were clear until the author, an employee of Delta Airlines in the US, posted pictures of herself in uniform - a move which saw her suspended and, ultimately, losing her job.

But this is not just an American phenomenon. Last year, an employee of Waterstone's - not an obvious hotbed of sedition - was identified as the author of a satirical blog in which he reportedly referred to his employer as "Bastardstone's" and called his manager "Evil Boss".

In both cases, the bloggers argued they had not breached company policy, because their employers had no policy in place to deal with blogging.

Their argument raises two important questions: whether blogging is permitted during working hours, and whether the employer can do anything about a blog's content.

The former is easily dealt with in an "acceptable use" policy, which will also cover personal use of the internet and e-mails at work in general.

Attempting to restrict the content of blogs is more controversial, particularly for public sector employers, which may be more susceptible to human rights arguments. However, as many contracts of employment now provide for disciplinary action against employees "bringing the company into disrepute", this could cover blogging.

But it is crucial for employers to ensure the response to any dispute regarding an employee blog is proportionate to the actual damage caused by the employee's conduct.

While comments which are unlikely to be traced back to a particular employer by the public are relatively harmless, if any references could lead to the company being identified to its detriment - or if specific individuals are named and criticised - the situation may justify disciplinary action.

As well as a formalised blogging policy, companies should consider the potential ramifications of podcasts and other increasingly popular "social media".

For innovative companies, blogs present an excellent, cost-effective channel for communicating with customers.

But, with 94 per cent of UK workers apparently unaware of their employers' blogging policy, the blogosphere is a jungle into which we seem to be wandering without proper protection.

• Jane Fraser heads up the employment pensions and benefits team at Maclay Murray & Spens.

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