Dealing with employee blogs can be an HR headache if a company doesn’t have any guidelines in place. But even guidelines won’t help after an employee leaves the company. And if that ex-employee left on less-than-congenial terms, blogging could become a forum to vent – potentially causing damage to the company’s reputation.
So what can companies do to control this?
Unfortunately, you can’t control it, said Stephen Turcotte, president of Backbone Media. But you can mitigate some of the problems that might occur, and prevent things from getting any worse.
Keep lawyers out of the social media as much as possible, he said. “If anything they’re going to slow down the process of having a genuine dialogue with somebody.”
Always try to see if there’s a way to deal with that person human-to-human before taking any further actions. “It never hurts to directly contact that person and see if they could oblige you,” he said. “The expectation is of course they would not, it’s against blogger best practices, but you never know.”
Companies should be monitoring what’s being said about them on the World Wide Web through keywords, such as company name, key products and even competitors (there are technology tools or companies-for-hire that will do this for you). You may even want to monitor employee names if you’re concerned about leaks or damaging statements, said Turcotte. But you have to do this on an almost daily basis, otherwise a long thread may have developed over a certain issue and the situation is even more out of control.
There may be some kind of contract that an employee signed when he or she was hired that stipulates they’re not allowed to discuss certain things once they leave the company.
But legal action should be a last resort, he said. Try to avoid using scare tactics, like presenting yourself as a corporation with an official letter that tells them to “cease and desist.”
“That probably is the last thing a blogger is going to respond to,” he said. You don’t have to apologize, he added, but you can try to address their concerns in some way. And don’t automatically turn it over to the PR department. If this disgruntled blogger is a developer, for example, they probably want to hear from a developer, not a PR person.
On the other hand, you don’t always have to address the blogger. “Is this a person trolling for a fight?” he said. “Sometimes ignoring them might be the best thing if it’s just this lone person out there on an unknown blog.”
Consider what they’re saying, what their authority is, and if this is an isolated event or if a lot of people are tagging onto the discussion. “You don’t want to end up fuelling something,” said Turcotte. “A company could end up being the oxygen for a little spark that turns into a big blaze.”
Sometimes the best strategy is prevention – trying to avoid getting in a sticky situation in the first place. And it starts with having a good policy in place. Most companies have worker guidelines or codes of business conduct; those should be revised to include blogs and other public forums.
While there’s no quick fix to solve this blogging problem, employers can increase the awareness of the consequences involved with blogging, said Jennifer Colasanti, research consultant with Info-Tech Research. You can start by including blogging in your code of conduct that outlines the company policy for e-mail and instant messaging (usually in regard to corporate data, client/partner information and trade secrets).Refreshing that policy and making employees sign it again will increase awareness of the idea, she said, and hopefully increase their level of professionalism toward blogging.
It could also help to build awareness of the consequences of disparaging a former employer on a blog. Recruiters are increasingly turning to Google to pre-screen candidates, for example – they’ll Google someone’s name, looking for blogs and Facebook profiles, to find any potential information they can on an applicant. And most employers would be hesitant to hire someone who made disparaging remarks about their ex-employer.
“I don’t think anyone wants to risk compromising their potential career opportunities,” said Colasanti. Some people think blogging about their ex-employer isn’t a big deal. By bringing that awareness out front, it could help to change their mind.
IBM is one company that has encouraged a blogging culture among its employees – currently it has 10,657 blogs on Blog Central (an internal blogging platform for IBMers). It also has a formal blogging policy in place, which was designed by the IBM blogging community itself (and looked over by the legal and HR departments).
“Within two weeks we had our guidelines created with the buy-in of the community who it affected most because they’re the ones who wrote it,” said David Berger, manager of strategic communications with IBM. Remaining consistent with your business conduct guidelines generally provides a way to deal with any negative situations that may arise.
“You have to differentiate between what is just criticism and what is something that is tangibly damaging,” he said. “I can’t think of an example where an ex-IBMer has used blogging in any way that’s been detrimental to the company.” Constructive criticism, he added, is not detrimental.
In fact, criticism can be a good thing, said Turcotte. If someone has a legitimate complaint, chances are others feel the same way. By publicly addressing the issue with that one person, you’re also addressing it with everyone else who has that issue.
Even if companies don’t have a policy for addressing problems, they need to be aware of what those problems are – because they don’t want to be finding out about them after it’s too late. “Companies can’t stick their head in the sand anymore, no matter how much they want to,” he said. “There’s no good rationale for not monitoring the blogosphere.”