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Monday, August 18, 2008

I'm Not Alone on the Blogger Firing Lines

Turns out I'm not the only one getting "fired" these days simply for writing a blog, on my own time.

It also happened recently to Michael J. McCarthy, a vice president at Citigroup. Bloomberg.com reports that the 35-year-old stock trader was fired after his employer realized he is "Large," the man behind the blog at http://www.takeareport.com/.

McCarthy's site, Bloomberg reports, "showcases women who manage to look insufficiently dressed, along with bawdy commentary on celebrities." Bloomberg further states the site "consists of remarks about homosexuals, excretory functions, concert reviews, and college football picks."

Lindsay Beyerstein has an insightful post about McCarthy's firing at her Majikthise blog and compares his situation to what happened to me at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB):

I've seen an employer elide blogging and surfing to justify a firing before. The University of Alabama at Birmingham used the same studied vagueness against former university editor Roger Shuler.

Here's how the HR language game works: Implying that an employee regularly blogged at work suggests that he's a chronic goof off who might well deserve the boot for slacking. Whereas, if you say you fired a longtime salaried employee for a little web surfing, people are going to ask questions.

Citigroup cited "behavior that violated the firm's code of conduct and policies" in firing McCarthy, Beyerstein reports. The firing came even though McCarthy never blogged about his employer, mentioned Citigroup, or identified himself.

Bloomberg's anonymous source says McCarthy did not blog at work, but he was accused of "accessing and promoting the blog on company time," whatever that means.

Obviously this hits close to home here at Legal Schnauzer. Let's compare and contrast McGarthy's situation with mine:

* McCarthy writes under a pseudonym; I write under my own name;

* McCarthy's blog, according to Beyerstein, is "a bunch of locker-room babble. It's sexist, homophobic, and generally crude." My blog is about judicial corruption and the promotion of honest government;

* One reader says McCarthy's blog is "funny as hell;" mine is not.

* McCarthy did not blog at work; neither did I;

* McCarthy is alleged to have "accessed and promoted" his blog at work, although it is unclear what those terms mean; UAB's own investigation showed I never accessed my blog at work, and I never promoted my blog at work. I would say maybe five or six of my closest coworkers knew about my blog, and it wasn't because of any promotion on my part.

* Speaking of promotion, McCarthy must be pretty darn good at it. Bloomberg reports that his blog averages 60,000 page views a day. Man, I guess crudity pays off. If I get 1,000 page views, it's a banner day.

* Here's something I suspect McCarthy and I have in common: We both got fired because we've been relatively successful at achieving our blogging goals. McCarthy, it appears, set out to be funny and attract an audience. Evidently he did both quite well, and that probably made him a target. If he had 500 page views a day, I imagine he would still be at Citigroup. I set out to expose corruption in Alabama state courts, tie it to national justice issues, and educate people about what, all too often, really goes on in the legal process. The goal was to write truthfully and with transparency (under my real name, citing numerous public documents as evidence). I accomplished my goal well enough that Congress and a number of prominent bloggers picked up on what I was doing--and that made me a target. If I had been writing a bunch of baloney that wasn't supported by fact or law, nobody would have cared--and I would still be working at UAB.

The message seems to be this: If you are going to blog, don't do it well and don't attract attention.

While the subject matter of McCarthy's blog apparently is crude, it's hard to see how he violated any company policies. Beyerstein puts things into context:

Setting aside the particulars of the McCarthy case, there's still a larger issue here. It is completely unreasonable for employers to be able to fire employees for blogging on their own time. Blogging on company time shouldn't be judged more harshly than playing solitaire, making paper clip sculptures, or using an office phone to call the babysitter. Obviously, people deserve to get fired for overdoing these things--but we all know that minor infractions are the norm, even for diligent employees.

Currently, non-work related internet access is management's "get rid of employee free" card. The rules tend to be vague and therefore to give management vast discretion. I often wonder whether they want employees to do a certain amount of surfing at work so they have a pretext to fire them at will.

There's a fiction that employers provide internet strictly for work and that any non-work-related use is dereliction of duty. At this point, most workplaces treat internet access for salaried employees as an amenity as well as a tool, like an office phone. Employers install phones in every cube, even for employees who have no phone-related duties. Despite pretenses to the contrary, the web now serves a similar function for the average office worker.

Obviously, employers have the right to set whatever rules they want for the use of company resources including the web and the phone. If a company wants to ban all web surfing at work, they're entitled to do so. What's unacceptable is treating the internet as an amenity to be used with discretion until you want to fire someone and then selectively enforcing the rules to get rid of them.

In my case, "surfing" the Web at work was not an issue. It is undisputed that part of my job description was to use the Web to research news and issues connected to Alabama and higher education. This included keeping up with the Don Siegelman case, which was the biggest story in Alabama over a two-year period and included a former ex officio president of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees (Siegelman) and UAB's most famous alumnus (Richard Scrushy).

Evidence indicates that someone with ties to the Alabama Republican Party grew uncomfortable with the truths presented in my blog, discovered I worked for a state institution, and took steps to get me fired. Under that kind of pressure, UAB suddenly decided that my actions--which were part of my job description--were non-work related activity. That led to me being fired--for doing my job.

Here's a curious thought: What if McCarthy and I had essentially swapped subject matter and blogging methods? What if I had blogged anonymously, making various crude statements about women, homosexuals, excretory functions etc.? What if McCarthy had, for some reason, decided to blog under his own name about the Don Siegelman case?

If I had chosen McCarthy's subject matter, I probably wouldn't have attracted anywhere near his audience. For one, I'm probably not as funny as he is. And two, I wouldn't have promoted my blog the way he evidently did. I probably wouldn't have attracted much attention and nobody would have figured out who I was.

If McCarthy had chosen my subject matter, it's safe to say his daily page views would have dropped dramatically. And no matter how well he might have written about the Siegelman case, and general Republican corruption in Alabama, he would have been doing it at a distance. He would not have been able to present the kind of first-person "citizen journalism" that I have presented. McCarthy would have been limited to sharing his opinions, which might have mildly ticked off a few GOPers in Alabama, but it's unlikely they would have gone after his job.

Makes me wish McCarthy and I had known each other when I started Legal Schnauzer in June 2007. He and I could have "switched hats," if you will. And the result? I would still be working at UAB, and he would still be working at Citigroup.

I agree with Beyerstein that, no matter how crude McCarthy's blog was, Citigroup made a bad decision.

But I have to give Citigroup credit for one thing. It seems the company has been fairly upfront about its actions. UAB, on the other hand, has been conducting a fairly elaborate coverup for quite some time. For example, UAB President Carol Garrison issued a public statement saying my termination had nothing to do with politics and was based solely on job performance. But Garrison's own grievance committee found that I shouldn't have been fired at all. And the following audiotape, featuring yours truly and UAB Employee Relations Director Anita Bonasera, begs to differ with the notion that politics and blogging were not involved in my case:

Blogging and Siegelman Audio

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