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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 July 2006, 10:55 GMT 11:55 UK
How to blog - and keep your job
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News

Man at computer
Bloggers may find a pseudonym is not enough to preserve anonymity
A British secretary allegedly sacked from her job in Paris over an internet diary is the latest in a growing line to pay a heavy price for blogging.

Catherine - who blogged anonymously under the pseudonym "Petite Anglaise" about life, love and work - has now launched a test case under French employment law.

She claims she was dismissed from accounting firm Dixon Wilson for bringing the company into disrepute, despite never naming it in her diary. The firm has not commented.

Since Catherine - who told anecdotes about office life and admitted lying to take time off - announced the legal case on her blog site, more than 200 readers have posted messages of support.

Her story is far from unique in the blogosphere.

Hazy guidelines

Delta Air Lines attendant Ellen Simonetti, known as Queen of the Sky, has brought legal action in the US after she lost her job apparently for posting "inappropriate images" of herself wearing company uniform.

Queen of the Sky in uniform
Ellen Simonetti ran into trouble after posing in her uniform for her blog

In the UK, Joe Gordon was sacked by bookseller Waterstones for "bringing the company into disrepute" after mentioning his boss in his satirical blog, the Woolamaloo Gazette.

And the experience of Heather Armstrong, a US web designer fired in 2002 for writing about a former employer on her blog, Dooce, led to a new term being coined: people sacked for blogging talk of being "dooced".

Blog sites have even compiled lists of dozens of "blogophobic" companies alleged to have sacked staff over their online journals.

With guidelines hazy on where the line can be drawn between an individual's private online writings and their public work persona, more such cases can be expected.

'Respect the law'

So how should individuals - and companies - pick their way safely through the potential minefield of blogging?

Struan Robertson, a technology lawyer for Pinsent Masons and editor of Out-Law.com, a website offering legal advice on internet issues, admits it is a difficult path to tread.

Screengrab of Queen of the Sky's website
Remember you can never be entirely sure who is reading
Don't rely on a pseudonym to preserve anonymity
Be aware of the dangers of defamation
Respect copyright and intellectual property laws
Avoid jokes which could provoke a sexual or racial harassment claim
"To work, a blog needs spontaneity and oxygen, not censorship," he says.

"It needs to bring out someone's personality - and that means keeping the legal department at arm's length."

To this end, bloggers must avoid defamation, respect copyright and take care not to spill trade secrets.

"A blogger could unwittingly knock millions off a company's value by making a market announcement in a blog exchange," Mr Robertson points out.

One problem is that bloggers writing personal journals, as opposed to blogging on their company's site, often believe using a pseudonym will be enough to protect their own - and their employer's - anonymity.

However, many firms take the view that a member of staff recognisable in any way will be seen by readers as representing the company.

Catherine, who was identified through a photo, told AFP: "In the dismissal letter they told me I had brought the company into disrepute, but I never once referred to it or the people there by name."

Much of her journal is devoted to tales of her relationship with "Mr Frog", father of her three-year-old daughter "Tadpole", and home life - with only occasional light-hearted references to her workplace.

Different faces

Amanda Lenhart, of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, says a survey of US bloggers released this week has found that most are focused on describing their own life and experiences.

What we might say to our mother or best friend is very different to what we might say to our boss - and a blog doesn't let you change that persona
Amanda Lenhart
Pew Internet Project
This runs counter to the popular US media image of bloggers as savvy political commentators - and may explain some people's naivety in talking unguardedly about work in a public arena, she says.

Many also assume their blog is read only by people they know.

"The real problem is that we present ourselves differently to different people," Ms Lenhart says.

"What we might say to our mother or best friend is very different to what we might say to our boss - and a blog doesn't let you change that persona."

Some 55% of an estimated 12m US bloggers use a pseudonym "so they can be a little more free in what they say", she says, but problems come if the connection is made between their online and offline lives.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a website supporting bloggers' legal rights, has published detailed tips on how to stay anonymous and advises against blogging in work time.

But, it warns, increasing scrutiny means "you can no longer safely assume that people in your offline life won't find out about your blog, if you ever could".

'Don't over-react'

Of course, another approach is to be open about who you work for and write "sensibly", says Mr Robertson.

Not all companies are against blogging - in fact some see it as an effective PR tool, giving a human face to their firm, and encourage staff to write by providing server space.

But Mr Robertson has a word of warning: companies must set out their blogging policy clearly.

Computer services firm IBM - where more than 3,000 employees have now set up a blog - consulted the company's own blogging community before drawing up its guidelines.

"If you publish a blog... use a disclaimer," is one of the firm's 10 principles. Another tells writers: "Don't pick fights."

And if a member of staff does raise hackles by criticising their boss?

"The employer needs to be careful," warns Mr Robertson.

"The employee has to understand that they are breaking the rules - and the employer shouldn't just sack them... or they could face a claim for unfair dismissal."

Companies and bloggers may watch the case brought by Petite Anglaise - due before a French employment tribunal later this year - with interest.

One blog created 'every second'
02 Aug 05 |  Technology
Work bloggers offered guidelines
08 Apr 05 |  Technology
Worker sacked over blog comments
12 Jan 05 |  Scotland
US blogger fired by her airline
03 Nov 04 |  Technology
Blogger grounded by her airline
27 Oct 04 |  Technology


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