Friday, November 17, 2006

HRC, the Foley blogs, and employment ethics


The story of an anonymous blogger who helped bring down Congressman Mark Foley in late September 2006, and whose discoveries probably contributed materially to the Democrats’ giving the Republicans “the broom” in the midterm 2006 elections, raises a serious issue about workplace ethics and free speech, and it is bound to have repercussions as a workplace issue in general.

This particular posting has nothing to do with homosexuality, or some of the other disturbing undertones of this particular matter. The underlying problem would have been the same regardless of the particular political or social issue. I am specifically concerned here about the workplace and speech issues as a matter of principle. This comports with earlier concerns about employers’ doing “background investigations” on applicants with search engines.

On Nov 10, Lou Chibbaro of The Washington Blade provided a full story of Lane Hudson’s blog, which had started in July 2006, and with Hudson’s employment with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) in September 2006 as a field organizer in Michigan. When it was discovered that Hudson had communicated with his blog at the workplace using HRC computers, he was terminated immediately, in late October 2006. The story is at this link.

However, an earlier story on Nov 3 by Elizabeth A Perry (link, while confirming that termination had been in large part because of inappropriate use of the employer’s computers, added also added a comment by HRC spokesperson David Smith: Hudson was fired Oct. 24 because he was engaged in “independent political work outside of his work for the HRC.”

Now that seems to be the more important point. When you go to work for a lobbying organization or any employer where you will represent your employer with your public personage and legal “right of publicity,” the employer presumes that your access to the public is strictly through the employer. This seems necessary to prevent ethical conflicts of interest. I have written more about this on my own site. Link1 Link2

Human resources professionals are only now getting a grip on this program. In July 2006, the American Management Association published a book by Nancy Flynn, “Blog Rules,” sold by The Society for Human Resource Management at this link. with my review at this link.
The recommendations in the book would suggest that employers insist that when associates blog on their own, that they use their own names. Anonymity will not be a defense. Of course, I know that others will object to this idea, and the ACLU and EFF have long defended anonymous online speech. My own feeling has always been, that if public-space (particularly under “free entry,” as on the web) political speech is to be effective, the speaker should be willing to make his or her identity known, and resign from his or her job if necessary. Of course, I know, this gets into the whistleblower issue.

While the media has been reporting on this kind of problem since the beginning of 2006, I have suspected it for a long time, since I have been active on the web since 1996. By 1999, I was already concerned, as I saw how effective search engines were going to be. I wrote my first piece on this in March 2000. In 2003, this issue came up when I made it the basis of a multiple choice question of a certification test that I was contracted to write.

I have maintained that individual contributors (people who do not have direct reports , who do not speak for their employer or who are not known by the public to be connected to their employer) would have more freedom with respect to this issue. In 1988-1989, I was a computer programmer for a consulting firm that provided statistical reports on Medicare for health care lobbyists. I had no impact on policy, but I wonder what kind of position I would be in today if I worked for them in the same capacity, given explosive political sensitivities.

As another example, consider this: in November 2006, an NBC affiliate station in Roanoke VA fired a broadcast meteorologist after a third party posted an inappropriate photo of him on Myspace.com, several months after being taken as a prank; apparently it was taken by a friend, but its appearance violated a clause in his contract since he is a public figure for the station. The story is at here. There is a more detailed story in the Roanoke Times at this link that indicates that he had persuaded Myspace to remove the photo immediately after learning about it, but nevertheless a saved copy got emailed to the station's management. So even removing a blog entry does not always save someone from a firing.

Whatever the ethics, however, I do think that the end results are for the best. In fact (as pointed out by a reader's letter to The Washington Blade), Mr. Hudson seems to have accomplished, with no investment and no compensation, what the HRC "bureaucracy" with all of the spectaculr matching grants at the HRC National Dinner (pushed by Mr. Solomonese) could not do: sink the Republicans this go round. Does the end justify the means? Some politicians thinks so. That is what they always said about Bill Clinton. He would do wrong in order to do good. Bush, given what happened in the 2000 election, can’t even say that.

Gail Sheehy and Judy Bachrach have an article on p 100 o the January 2007 Vanity Fair, "Don't Ask, Don't Email" about the Foley affair, giving his biography, and some graphic Dateline-like chat logs (although it is not sure that the recipients were legal minors). His top aide Kirk Fordham practically singlehandedly kicked him out of Congress when the story broke (with the chatlogs) at the end of September 2006.

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