Blogging employees - a company brand's enemy or strongest ally? Internal blogging policy makes social media a win-win for companies and bloggers

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The headline on last week's Metro daily newspaper read, "Bus driver fired over blog," and describes the story of Michael Cox's brief term as a bus driver working for Coast Mountain Bus Company here in Vancouver. The article starts by describing Michael's perspective on events, such as his initial desire to share what he was learning in his bus driving training experience to friends and family. A representative from the Canadian Autoworkers, his union, is quoted confirming that the blog was the reason for his dismissal, while CMBC says that they do not comment on employees, citing privacy. The article also alludes to a blog post he wrote in which he was critical about Coast Mountain's response to our recent winter snowstorm, pointing out that he was equally mindful of the extraordinary circumstances the storm presented – and some have speculated that it is this criticism, not the blog itself, that may have tipped their opinion out of Michael's favor.

This incident underscores just how important it is for your company or organization to have a blogging policy for your employees and volunteers - and how public the price can be if you are caught in a situation without one. Being fired for what one says on their blog is a common enough occurrence that in the blogging world, a verb has been invented for it: "dooce," with common usage being, "They were dooced," referring to being dismissed for something said online about work, and the lessons of the companies who went through this in the early days of blogging are worth noting as blogging picks up. (The term refers to the name of the blog of Heather Armstrong, who turned the story of her dismissal into a job as a blogger.)

The mainstreaming of social media

Michael's comment on how he came to start blogging provides some insight into his perspective:

"The initial impetus for the blog was for friends and family — curious about my training — but soon I got more interested in blogging about transit in general, including other cities, and was writing entries each night after my shift."

In other words, Michael got bit by the blogging bug — just like the thousands of us who, using tools like Facebook and Twitter, have found joy and connection in sharing our everyday lives with the people we love and respect. As more companies show that they are savvy in using social media to connect with what's meaningful to their employees (rather than viewing it antagonistically, as I would argue CMBC has done), a "doocing" now speaks volumes about the culture of the companies towards their employees — and, for a highly public service like transit, towards their customers as well.

Be proactive with social media in your organization

While Coast Mountain Bus Company may be within their rights to dismiss Michael, the message they've sent with this action – both to the broader community as a whole, their current employees and any future employees – is that they don't want to listen to, or have their employees express, anything off-message; and that they will not engage with the feedback of their employees, especially if it is made public. This reaction makes sense if one views branding as being based in principles of command and control. But these ideas are rapidly being made irrelevant as people learn to interact with each other and the companies and organizations affecting their daily lives, using the technology and tools that make doing this easy. Command and control are at best stilted and at worst, highly damaging, when it comes to conducting a conversation to sustain a relationship.

How can CMBC prevent this from happening again? Our experience is that an internal blogging policy can go a long way for setting expectations both for supervisors and managers, and their staff. (Many other companies have gone down this route, and are often more than happy to share what has worked for their organization and sector.) A blog policy is typically the outcome of a conversation that acknowledges that employees may want to blog, and spells out the spirit in which this writing, reflecting and sharing should go forward. Most importantly, it means that people at all levels of the organization (especially one like CMBC, where employees vary largely in duties, responsibility, public visibility and scope) can negotiate what can and can't be said, the reasons behind it, and appropriate courses of action in a case of disagreement.

Moreover, some dismissals make sense. A blogging policy done correctly helps you define this on terms that are based upon values and principles that employees agree on and have had a say in.

Blogs don't start conversations where none were happening before. Pretending that they're not happening not only robs you of a valuable opportunity to engage with your employees - it can keep you from innovating in the ways you need to, in order to stay relevant to your customers.

The Cost of Staying Still

Coast Mountain Bus Company proudly boasts that they have been consistently named as one of British Columbia's top employers - so they are obviously doing something right for their employees. While this incident in and of itself does not change all the other things that may make CMBC a great place to work, the impression outsiders are being left with is the quote that Metro chose to highlight on their front page:

"My naivete was in thinking - if I thought about it at all - that I could write freely, on my own time, about work and not suffer repercussions for telling the truth."

If this is your organization, wouldn't you rather have a much happier ending to this story - for your organization, your employee, and your customers?

Disclosure: I have previously consulted with TransLink, Coast Mountain Bus Company's parent company, on social media public engagement projects like SkyTrain Unconference, and am sometimes peripherally involved in grassroots public transit advocacy in Vancouver.


Cartoon: Pee Into This Cup & Hand Over Your Twitter says

August 25, 2009 - 5:24pm

[...] slope gets a little more slippery once we start dealing with people who criticize their employer on their blogs… or just discuss their job without [...]

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