Friday, December 14, 2007

Blogger Burns For Berating Employer

Should bloggers be dismissed for blogging unsavory comments about one’s job?

Llewellyn Kriel is the first journalist in South Africa to have his contract of employment terminated for making comments in a blog. Kriel, who worked for South Africa’s second largest media house Avusa (originally Johncom), has made history with this controversial achievement. Naturally, to be fired ostensibly for doing something as harmless as blogging has set the local blogosphere on fire. Well, should he have been fired or shouldn’t he?

If the concern was really sanctity of the information involved, probably a fraction of the public or bloggers in general would even have been aware of Kriel’s original remarks (see Working in that pig's ear, baby), but his having lost his job, this story has been circulated and recirculated, the offending post examined and reexamined before being sent off to start furious wildfires elsewhere (such as here on Ohmynews). No, it seems Mr. Kriel has been punished and held accountable as a matter of corporate policy. This naturally sets a precedent, but is the precedent a fair one?

Interestingly enough, a wider context casts a curious shadow over the Kriel blog brou ha ha. It refers to the changing of Johncom’s longstanding corporate branding to Avusa, an African name that means ‘to stir up or arouse feelings’. And ironically enough, this company that hired Kriel as a sub-editor – Avusa – itself publishes its own blogs. The Times Planet Blog is an interactive subsection published as part of an online daily staple and is the extension of the countries’ biggest newspaper, the Sunday Times.

Kriel’s comments were published on a rival – the Mail & Guardian’s – Thought Leader blog; on an online page specially created for a Llewellyn Kriel blog or column. It was a November 13 posting that got him out of the frying pan and into being fired. Two weeks later, after a hearing at the Avusa offices in Rosebank, Johannesburg, Kriel was immediately suspended.

Avusa claimed he was not fired for abusing his right to freedom of expression, but alluded to wrongful disclosure of confidential corporate information and bringing the reputation of the Sowetan into disrepute. This has unleashed howls of protest and a furor in certain circles.

While some have raised salient points about the legality of the particular disclosure involved (a recruiting issue which presumably would be communicated in any event to an outside person applying for a job), the bottom line, as I see it, lies not in the technical details of what was said. It is the obvious ethos, the sentiment underlying all that Kriel wrote. It is quite obvious that Kriel’s unfortunate post contains a high level of bitterness. Many nasty resentments are unfortunately expressed towards his workplace.

Publishing so many unhappy sentiments on a rival publications’ blog is – for the lack of a better word – a disreputable thing to do. This is the word the hearing uses, and it is appropriate, for indeed Kriel’s musings are by turns disgraceful, scandalous and even seedy. Would he really say these sorts of things openly over a lunch table with his boss? The ‘animal farm’ references irk, and one can imagine management feeling stung by the excessive vitriol invested by the writer.

As someone who actively blogs, I would naturally be drawn towards sympathizing with Kriel, but it becomes obvious that his November 13 writings overstepped the mark, and by a substantial margin. Many other bloggers and employees who also work at Avusa, such as Justin Hartman, echo these sentiments. It is also not entirely accurate to make this a case about blogging per se, but about what sort of ordinary everyday behaviour is decent or acceptable where it relates to discussing work issues. There must be a corporate policy in place to protect against the spreading of rumours or otherwise circulating proprietary or simply sensitive information, particularly when this transpires to have occurred in a disingenuous manner.

A comment (from Claire) following a discussion of this issue on the Thought Leader blog is particularly astute in my opinion: ‘If anything this dismissal – as unnecessary as it was – serves as a reminder to bloggers everywhere that just because we now have the power to broadcast our opinion across the planet does not mean these opinions are sacrosanct, or that the people voicing them are inviolable.’

Kriel (notwithstanding his diatribe that set everything off) was understandably upset to lose his job, which begs the question, ‘What was he thinking when he did it?’

I think I can answer that question. Around this time last year I also lost my job. I was working at a High School at the time. I was not fired; my contract was simply not renewed. To be honest, I was troubled by why my apparently valiant efforts at that school had been stymied when so many members of staff were quitting or leaving. After all, I was prepared to try, I was prepared to work. It didn’t seem to make sense. I did not fight the dismissal as I found it incredibly soul destroying work. But a few weeks later I encountered a teacher one day in a shopping mall who refused to make eye contact with me. Shortly after that I encountered two seniors while eating a hamburger. They asked me why I had written ‘nasty things’ about their school. It took a moment to recover from the shock. First of all, what were they talking about? Oh that old thing. Ooops! And then Jeepers! How did they know?

‘Someone googled* you and then told everyone about the article.’
‘But,’ I sputtered, ‘I never mentioned the name of the school, did I?’
‘You did sir,’ they said.
‘No, you’re wrong.’ But I was wrong. I went online that afternoon and checked, and sure enough, I had mentioned the name of the school, and much besides. I hadn’t been inaccurate, probably I had been TOO accurate, and I have to admit, it was disingenuous. Now the odd staffroom comments one day by the headmaster: ‘if anyone wants to let off steam they can come to me’ – made sense. And now I understood why I was asked to return the duplicate key for the computer room.

See, it may not be the blogger’s intention to ruin the reputation of an institution (it wasn’t mine). They – bloggers – are really just venting, in a blind sort of way. And then the ill feeling passes, and we forget about it. Trouble is, it has a life of its own on the internet. In fact, it’s fair to say once something is on the internet, it is more surely carved in stone than something ACTUALLY carved in stone. So bloggers, be careful.

To answer the question why did he do it, I think it’s just this: When we write, doesn’t it feel like we are simply voicing our feelings, and there is some satisfaction seeing them fit onto a glowing square. The distance is soothing, isn’t it? There is not as much malicious intent as there seems to be, and there’s a distant stomach grumble of comfort that somewhere out there, perhaps, someone is listening, perhaps they even care.

In reality though (and let’s get back to that shall we), blogging is more like going outside and putting up huge billboards all over suburbia. People can see exactly who is putting them up. They see you doing it, and your name is attached. Hence, the message you post up there for all to see better be one you can live with the next morning, when the sugar rush and bad pizza that propelled these sentiments into a public domain has diminished somewhat.

In the end, the same rules that apply in the real world apply in the virtual. Say it like it is, but don’t be too honest. Try not to mention names if you don’t absolutely have to. Be fair to all, and rather say too little than too much.

*It is actually only searchable on Yahoo

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