Q. One employee maintains a blog which has made some unflattering remarks about the company. Can I take action against the blogger?

A. Blogs are basically diaries which are made available through the Internet to all cyberspace. Some have a tight focus; others comprise an unstructured pastiche of personal, professional, and social commentary. The most popular ones are read daily by hundreds of thousands of readers and further clipped by other blogs, and so reach audiences in the millions; the majority are seen by a few hundred people each day.

Recent months have seen a number of high-profile cases of bloggers who were fired for crossing the line of what was acceptable to their employers. In turn, a simmering debate has developed over the appropriate ethical parameters.

Employer objection to blog content takes a number of forms:

  1. Content is unseemly. For example, a flight attendant was fired for posting photos that lacked the modesty and reserve which the airline normally demanded of attendants in their uniforms.

  2. Content conflicts with work responsibilities. A tour guide was fired for making uncomplimentary comments about some of the sites which during work hours she was expected to praise.

  3. Content unflattering to the employer. Blogs are sometimes used as a kind of online primal scream, and sometimes bloggers like to get problems in the workplace off their chests.

  4. Content which could be seen as representing the company. The statement may be harmless but the company is worried if it sounds like the blogger is speaking in their name.

The main ethical conundrum of personal blogs is that they fall into a perplexing gray area. If the tour guide made her comments in front of a few friends, it would obviously not be an offense; if she publicized a newspaper article the employer's concern would certainly be understandable. The blog is in the middle. It's available to everyone like the newspaper article, but in practice only a few people usually see it - like a private comment.

A similar distinction is found in Jewish law. In the Talmud we find that a statement repeated before three people may be considered to be "common knowledge" which is generally known. But Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hacohen writes that this is true only in a small town; in a large city, word doesn't spread so rapidly. (1) Extrapolating from this insight, if the blog is a small private one and your market is a big national one, you should probably consider the communication private. But if your business serves a small community of people, and the blog is read by members of this community, you do have basis for concern.

Another insight is that you should examine your motives for wanting to fire the worker. One possibility is that you are upset because the statements are false or malicious; then your displeasure is certainly understandable. Another possibility is that you are upset because the statements are true!

If the complaints are well-founded, the worker should probably have expressed his frustrations directly to you before launching them into the cypersphere, but from your point of view you should be hesitant to silence criticism in this way. Your worker's statement may not be a rotten egg but actually a golden one which will enable you to identify ways to improve your management.

The Torah tells us that reproof is a mitzvah; we should be grateful for the pointer though we may have objections to how it is presented. And the very next verse tells us not to bear grudges. "Don't hate your brother in your heart; surely reprove your fellow, and don't bear sin towards him. Don't seek vengeance and don't bear a grudge; love your neighbor as yourself - I am the Lord" (Leviticus 19:17-18).

The final insight we can bring from Jewish tradition is that summary dismissal is almost certainly inappropriate. Our law says that a miscreant employee should be given an opportunity to mend his or her ways before being dismissed, except in the cases of inexcusable negligence. (2)

So your first step should be to examine if taking action against this employee is really in your best interest. If the person is a good worker and not doing any material damage to your firm, the best thing is probably to just leave him alone and take advantage of any lessons you can learn from his log.

If you conclude that the worker's words create an unfair image of your firm, then by all means take action. Explain your expectations to the worker, and listen carefully to any counterclaims he may make. If you have given fair warning and the activity continues then you should consider disciplinary action.

SOURCES: (1) Chafetz Chaim book I chapter 2:6. (2) Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 306:8.

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The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of Aish.com and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at www.besr.org.