Business, as usual

Monday, August 24, 2009
I learned a long time ago that the business world is neither fair nor just.

Many, many years ago, while in high school, some friends and I decided to take our lunchtime gaming activities to the next level and petition the school to make it an official club. After jumping through all of the proverbial hoops, our application was rejected on the grounds that there was a perception that games such as Dungeons & Dungeons involved witchcraft and other possible dark arts. (It also didn't help that there had just been a heavily publicized case of a student whose disappearance had been reported to have been related to his participation in the game.) Knowing that the decision of the school management was based on misinformation, I decided to petition the students in an attempt to reverse the decision.

At the same time, I was employed by a small, family-owned office supply store. I mentioned the situation to my boss, along with my plans to appeal the school's ruling. I was told, in very clear terms, to drop the matter if I wanted to continue my employment. As the school district was a major customer, it would not be appropriate for someone recognizable as part of that business to challenge the school on such an issue. (It was also far more complex than that, as this was also a highly active Catholic area, but I'll leave the religious angles out of this discussion for some other time.)

Stunned and hurt by the lack of support, I did not further persue the issue. It was my first job; I was saving for a car and college--and it was several steps above dealing with daily grease spatters at one of the neighborhood fast food places. The lesson was well-learned though: fear of losing one's regular paycheck can trump the spirit behind many a just cause.

Flash forward to present day . . .

Last week, I was greeted by this report by CNN. Let me share just a brief excerpt, but please read the rest on your own later:
(CNN) -- Blog fans in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, saw PittGirl as their masked superhero -- a comedian and local commentator who jibed the mayor without reserve and ranted freely about her hatred of pigeons.

But despite her effort to keep her real name secret, people started to figure out who PittGirl was.

Feeling pressure to take control of her identity before someone else outed her, PittGirl on Wednesday posted pictures of herself on her blog and introduced readers to her real-world self: Virginia Montanez, a 35-year-old married mother of two who worked in the nonprofit sector.

On Thursday morning, Montanez was fired from her job because of her online persona, she said.
What I find interesting about this article is that in none of the cases does it state, specifically, the reason why the individuals were fired other than for espousing their opinions online under pseudonyms. It is not stated whether those opinions were at odds with those of the organizations they had been part of, whether their remarks were potentially legally actionable against both the individual or the organization, or whether the actions taken were the collective result of other factors entirely.

Although I might be reading more into it than there is, the message I get from it is this: If you work for any organization, don't go public with your opinions--any opinions. If you do so anonymously, they can and will find out. In fact, there is even a statement in the article that goes as far to say (and I paraphrase on purpose here) that to hide behind an online pseudonym is akin to cowardice.

Now while I definitely agree that people should take care about the opinions they provide on public online forums, particularly if they involve bad-mouthing their employers. That strikes me as just good common sense. However, this feels to me like a serious blurring between an individual's professional and personal lives (and heaven knows that organizations are already trying to claim more than their fair share of one's time).

In this time of constant fear over losing one's employment, I see this as yet one more tool in a company's arsenal of tools for maintaining control (and, I would even daresay, ownership) over its employees. No longer are an inidividual's personal opinions and activities their own, but they can now come--legally--under scrutiny and subject to possible retalitory action by the companies that employ them.

I wish I had something concrete to recommend here other than expressing your outrage (and then possibly putting yourself at the same risk as those mentioned in the article). In a country that prides itself for having Freedom of Speech, I find what this article reports (and what it doesn't say) alarming.

Side Note: I happened to see this article at the same time that I was struggling with the future direction of this blog—and whether there was even going to be one. Part of me was prepared to toss reserve and caution to the proverbial wind and begin putting out my opinions as I had not done before. I'm not saying that I won't still do so, but the coincidence of the appearance of the article was unsettling.
Labels: ,