Employee blogs require smart policies

Employee blogs are growing exponentially in the private sector and also are increasingly cropping up in public schools. While these blogs show great promise from a number of perspectives, it’s important for school leaders to adopt sound policies governing their use. Self-initiated and often self-sustaining, employee blogs can speed information sharing, increase problem-solving, and improve productivity within an organization.

For example, teachers can post an internal blog about a challenge they’re facing in the classroom and receive hundreds of potential solutions from their colleagues quickly and easily.

Combined with RSS feeds, which automatically update subscribers whenever new content is posted, blogs can be used to swap lesson plans, teaching strategies, discipline tips, and new research.

Blogging’s potential for connecting and engaging employees in online conversations can help reduce classroom isolation, as teachers find a home in professional online communities.

Blogging also can help educators meet and converse with colleagues in other district schools without leaving their respective school campuses.

By increasing collaboration, many school leaders hope blogging will help their faculties generate new and better ways to help students succeed.

In addition, employee blogs can serve a viral marketing function, spreading the word about benefit changes and other human-resource issues.

Externally, teachers and principals can use blogs to give parents a glimpse of classroom and school life and as a window into each educator’s unique personality, values, and teaching or leadership style.

By humanizing and personalizing public education, teachers and administrators also can use blogs to soften criticism of the public school bureaucracy, in much the same way that Robert Scoble, a former “technical evangelist” for Microsoft, did for the “evil empire in Redmond” with his popular Scobleizer blog.

According to a 2005 study by Backbone Media, most employees blog to publish ideas and content (52 percent), build community (47 percent), and serve as experts and thought leaders (44 percent) for their profession or personal passions.

The study also showed that employee bloggers use this fast-growing and highly credible communications tool to share information with and get feedback from consumers.

CEOs and other top executives are beginning to understand how blogging can help introduce new ideas and market goods and services.

Considered a form of viral marketing because the spread from consumer to consumer happens spontaneously, external blogs focus primarily on commentary and personal opinion.

Not surprisingly, the unfiltered nature of blogs can represent a potential legal liability and public relations nightmare if used inappropriately or unwisely by employees.

Although major technology powerhouses like IBM, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard encourage and support employee blogging, others view blogs with trepidation.

That might be because only 15 percent of U.S. companies have policies that address work-related blogs, according to a 2006 study by the Employment Law Alliance. While many teachers undoubtedly have personal blogs, the line between personal and professional is laser-thin for public employees.

No one wants to see his or her child to go online and find a blog showing a beloved teacher in a string bikini–or a coach’s five favorite steroid supplements.

Although a quick trip through MySpace.com could give any school leader angina, the Employment Law Alliance study shows that most employees understand this.

While 23 percent of employees surveyed thought they should be able to post criticism or satire about their employers, colleagues, and customers, 59 percent agreed employees could be disciplined or terminated for posting confidential or proprietary information.

Another 55 percent felt the same way about employee bloggers who post damaging, embarrassing, or negative information about their organization or its customers. While the bottom line for employees seems to be criticizing the boss versus criticizing the organization, the loss of message control and the unfiltered nature of employee blogs is a very real challenge for school administrators.

That’s why it’s so important to draft policies and regulations governing blogs and other forms of consumer-generated media.

IBM, with more than 15,000 active employee bloggers, according to some estimates, has one of the most complete–and widely admired–sets of corporate blogging policies and guidelines.

By advocating “IBMers’ responsible involvement today in this new, rapidly growing space of relationship, learning, and collaboration,” IBM has gone on record as supporting its employees’ participation in online publishing.

While IBM doesn’t try to restrict, filter, or censor employee blogs, the company does hold “IBMers” personally responsible for their posts and refers them to the company’s business code of conduct.

The company also insists that employees identify themselves, include a disclaimer, and make it clear they are not writing for IBM.

IBM employees also are expected to adhere to all copyright, fair use, and financial disclosure laws and not disclose “IBM’s or another’s confidential or proprietary information.”

Employees also must get prior approval before citing or referencing clients, partners, or suppliers on their blogs, and they are asked to show respect and “proper consideration for others’ privacy and for topics that may be considered objectionable or inflammatory–such as politics and religion.”

As a firm believer in free speech, Harvard Law School actively supports employee blogging and has posted blog guidelines that administrators and school board members would be wise to review and adapt for public school districts (see http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/home).

The policy and guidelines cover several key areas, such as rights in content, including attribution terms and agreements; conduct in posting and accessing content; restrictions on posting information regarding children under age 13; disclaimers regarding warranties and limitations of liability; privacy concerns; terms of use; and copyright complaint procedures.

In addition, school officials might want to delineate how much time–if any–their employees can spend during the work day on their blogs and other online publishing activities.

School administrators also need to determine whether blogging will remain an employee-initiated activity or something the district actively supports.

Many technology and communications companies have embraced this powerful digital tool and are creating online communities to help employees participate constructively and professionally in the blogosphere. (For a great example, see the “Collective Conversations” site created by public relations giant Hill and Knowlton for its employees and consultants, http://blogs.hillandknowlton.com/blogs/aboutcc.aspx.) With more than 38 million full-time workers in the U.S. having on-the-job internet access, the intersection between personal and organizational interests is only going to increase.

Wise school leaders need to start choreographing that dance now, so they can leverage the benefits of online publishing while minimizing–and even avoiding–the inherent risks. Resources:

Efimova, L., and Grudin, J. (2007). “Crossing boundaries: A case study of employee blogging.” Proceedings of the Fortieth Hawaiian International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS-40). Los Alamitors: IEEE Press. Wright, D.K., and Hinson, M. (2006). “Weblogs and employee communication: Ethical questions for corporate public relations.” Paper presented at the ninth annual International Public Relations Research Conference in Miami, Fla.

Nora Carr is chief communications officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications.

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