Beware the pitfalls of the ubiquitous blog

Blogging is a growing part of modern life – but what are the legal implications for employers? Simon Page reports.

EMPLOYERS should be more aware of the power of the "blog", according to industry experts in Yorkshire.

They should open their eyes to the medium and realise that blogs are on the increase and that their employees may well be among those creating them.

Their warning follows news that a young mother from Yorkshire was recently sacked from her job after her employers objected to the content of her online blog.

"Catherine" was sacked from her position at British accountancy firm Dixon Wilson, in Paris, for keeping a blog that openly mocked her employers. Although she did not reveal her employer's name, she published pictures of herself on the site and her employer argued that this made her and the firm identifiable.

The notion of posting one's everyday musings on the web may be a delightful one, but not everyone is aware of just how powerful a blog can be, nor of the far-reaching legal implications.

The head of the employment law department at leading Yorkshire law firm McCormicks, Neil Goodrum, highlighted the many employment issues surrounding blogging. "Blogging is on the increase," he says, "And the different ways of blogging and accessing a blog make it more difficult for employers to check what employees may be doing or to see the impact on their business".

Spencer Hudson, internet industry expert at Ideas Merchant, in Harrogate, says: "You'd be surprised who keeps a blog – Margaret Wollstrom, Vice-President of the European Commission, does, as well as Channel 4's broadcast journalist Jon Snow.

"The power of the blog is very potent – Microsoft gets absolutely hammered on a regular basis, and an Englishman named Adrian Melrose, who bought an allegedly defective Land Rover Discovery, has been attacking the company via his blog ever since."

Hudson notes: "When users comment on topics discussed in blogs, this can lead to bloggers turning one comment into a big issue that is debated online across the world. And bloggers can provide instant commentary on live events."

These blogs may seem innocent, but with no restrictions on who reads them and what the bloggers write about, they can have far-reaching implications.

Neil Goodrum advises caution. "How far can employers go? Remember the employee's rights under the Human Rights Act to start with. Everyone has a right to freedom of expression and to respect for private life and correspondence.

"Employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy, and employment contracts have in them an implied term of mutual trust and confidence which, if breached, may result in a claim for unfair dismissal."

Goodrum goes on to explain that IT and communications policies should be kept under review and employers need to be clear about what is acceptable and what is not regarding blogs.

Firms should state what is done in work hours and warn employees that monitoring, to the extent that it is lawful to do so, takes place.

However, the right of an employer to monitor employee's communications, whether by email, telephone or in writing a blog, is limited, and monitoring should be relevant and necessary to the business.

Disciplinary steps should follow the statutory Dismissal and Disciplinary Procedure as a minimum – the employer must act consistently and fairly, and ensure that any penalty imposed is reasonable.

Goodrum advises all businesses to take blogs seriously, saying: "To meet the new challenges of technology, have clear written reasonable policies and take advice before monitoring any communications."

What is a blog?

A weblog, which is usually shortened to blog, is a type of website where entries are made (such as in a journal or diary), displayed in a reverse chronological order. Blogs often provide commentary or news on a particular subject, such as food, politics, or local news; some function as more personal online diaries.

A typical blog combines text, images, and links to other blogs, web pages, and other media related to its topic. Most blogs are primarily textual although many focus on photographs, videos or audio. The word blog can also be used as a verb, meaning to add an entry to a blog.