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More employers reading workers' blogs

Angela Doody of Central Penn Business Journal

It is not unusual for actress Melissa Dunphy to write about her personal problems - including work-related issues - on an Internet blog site for the whole world to see.

The 25-year-old Australia native has written online about everything from her latest work project at the Gamut Theatre Group in Harrisburg to finding a bat in her house at 2 a.m.

Luckily for Clark Nicholson, the theater's founder and artistic director, Dunphy is pretty happy with her current employer. Otherwise, she could publicly trash his acting troupe or release potentially damaging information.

Nicholson not only reads Dunphy's site, he often checks her blog to find out what is going on with his seven employees at the Strawberry Square theater when he's out of town.

"I like Melissa's blog. It helps in my business to intimately know my employees. I'm constantly soliciting information on how they feel about their jobs because they reflect that attitude on stage," Nicholson said. "It would probably be different if I had a lot of employees to keep track of, like Wal-Mart."

Web logs, or blogs, are an increasingly common form of online journal. Roughly 8 million Americans have created blogs that are read by 32 million Internet users. Blog readership increased by 58 percent between 2003 and 2004, according to a national survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Blogs especially are popular with young adults, the survey showed.

Though the digital diaries can enable writers to express themselves creatively in a public forum, employees should be careful when it comes to blogging about their jobs.

Nationally, there have been several highly publicized cases in which workers were fired for criticizing their employers online.

A Delta Air Lines flight attendant was fired in November because the photos she posted of herself on a blog site were deemed "inappropriate." Google Inc. employee Mark Jeri was fired a month after landing a job at the Internet search company. His offense: blogging about his impressions of life at the company.

Brian Jackson, an attorney with the Harrisburg law firm of McNees Wallace & Nurick, said blogging has not been an issue for the businesses he represents. But he is ready for it when it becomes one.

"We've already thought this through with a number of our clients," said Jackson, chairman of the firm's labor and employment law group.

Jackson and other Pennsylvania legal experts say the Constitution and First Amendment laws do not protect employee bloggers. In other words, workers who trash their companies or supervisors online may get canned.

"In Pennsylvania, you blog at your own risk," said Evelyn Boss Cogan, a business law professor with La Salle University in Philadelphia. "There's no constitutional right to free speech if you're bad mouthing your employer. You could be fired or sued for defamation."

Jackson's clients are not necessarily bothered by potential complaints about their companies or management. What is more worrisome is the threat of employees releasing private information, such as trade secrets or financial transactions.

Employers should be upfront with their workers about which topics they may not chat about in public and should have workers sign confidentiality agreements, Jackson said.

Firing employees for blogging may be an overreaction and could create more dysfunction and poor morale in the workplace, Jackson warned. He recommends businesses create a safe place for employees to vent, such as an internal company blog, informal meetings or a suggestion box.

While blogs can be damaging, a number of business consultants encourage their clients to read the online sites to gauge their employees' morale and the overall internal climate at the company.

"Wouldn't you rather know what your employees are saying around the water cooler? Blogs give (management) a sense of what their employees are saying," said Joshua Estrin, president and chief executive officer of Concepts in Success, a national business development firm in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Instead of being offended when an employee complains a supervisor is grumpy, managers should try to improve the workplace atmosphere, Estrin said. He also counsels firms about using blogs for marketing purposes.

"Personally, if a manager complains to me that an employee is blogging about them, it's like, 'Get over it, you big baby.' I see an employee venting on a blog site as an opportunity," Estrin said.

Ross Karchner, a support analyst at KnowledgePlanet in Upper Allen Township, has kept a blog since 2002. For the most part, the 25-yearold keeps his work chatter limited to where he is traveling on business.

"It's probably not appropriate to whine about KnowledgePlanet online," Karchner said. "Plus, I know my supervisor looks at my blog site anyway."

Dunphy also tries to be aware that she could upset her employer if she said the wrong thing.

"When I blog, I blog in the moment. But there is a definite danger there. Obviously, if you blog about confidential information, you are responsible for that, especially with a small business," Dunphy said.

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