Citigroup vice president Michael J. McCarthy was recently fired for blogging.
His blog, Take a Report, is a bunch of locker room babble. It's sexist, homophobic, and generally crude. Mostly, the McCarthy posts clothed pictures of women and makes snarky comments about their bodies. It's gross, but it's pretty tame by internet losers standards.
McCarthy, a self-proclaimed fat guy who blogs under the pseudonym "Large" amuses himself and his 60,000 daily visitors by ridiculing the bodies of female strangers.
He's male privilege personified, but I'm inclined to stick up for him on general principle. McCarthy's pathetic habits are his own business.
If Citigroup will fire a VP for blogging, every blogger's job is at risk. Pam Spaulding writes:
While McCarthy’s blog is pretty rank, Citigroup cited “behavior that
violated the firm’s code of conduct and policies,” even though he never
blogged about his employer, mentioned Citigroup or identified himself.
You can be fired for blogging about your job, using your work computer or its network for personal matters, on your lunch hour—and even for blogging at home in many states, unless there is explicit permission to do so. Case law has usually sided with the employer.
Ostensibly, McCarthy was fired for accessing and promoting his blog at work, but I don't buy it. Almost certainly, it was the content of the blog that motivated Citibank to go looking for evidence that he'd blogged at work.
McCarthy lost his job after Citigroup, the biggest U.S. bank
by assets, determined that he was using his computer at work to
access and promote the site, said a person with knowledge of his
ouster. [Bloomberg, emphasis added]
Notice that even Bloomberg's anonymous source stops short of accusing McCarthy of blogging at work. The ex-trader is only alleged to have accessed and promoted the blog on company time.
Nobody alleges that McCarthy was logging in and writing posts while he was supposed to be working. Presumably a lot of other Citigroup employees also read McCarthy's blog at work and, as far as we know, they haven't all been fired for it. "Promoting" the site could be something as trivial as sending a link to a friend using a company email account.
I've seen an employer elide blogging and surfing to justify a firing before. The University of Alabama at Birmingham used the same studied vagueness against former university editor Roger Shuler.
Here's how the HR language game works: Implying that an employee regularly blogged at work suggests that he's a chronic goof off who might well deserve the boot for slacking. Whereas, if you say you fired a longtime salaried employee for a little web surfing, people are going to ask questions.
There may well be more to McCarthy's firing than meets the eye. Bloomberg reports that he was scheduled to speak at a major banking industry gathering. The story seems to imply that he was invited to talk about the blog. It's also unclear whether he accepted the invitation before or after he was fired.
If McCarthy was scheduled to speak about his blog and he was fired after he accepted the invitation, he deserved to get fired. A vice president of a bank should not be lecturing other bankers about online catcalling at an industry gathering.
McCarthy's indiscretions could have serious implications for Citigroup. The company has faced sex discrimination lawsuits in the past. McCarthy tried to remain anonymous. But once the bank found out that a VP was maintaining a catcalling blog, they may have had some legal responsibility to investigate and act on their findings.
Setting aside the particulars of the McCarthy case, there's still a larger issue here. It is completely unreasonable for employers to be able to fire employees for blogging on their own time. Blogging on company time shouldn't be judged more harshly than playing solitaire, making paper clip sculptures, or using an office phone to call the babysitter. Obviously, people deserve to get fired for overdoing this things--but we all know that minor infractions are the norm, even for diligent employees.
Currently, non-work related internet access is management's "get rid of emloyee free" card. The rules tend to be vague and therefore to give management vast discretion. I often wonder whether they want employees to do a certain amount of surfing at work so they have a pretext to fire them at will.
There's a fiction is that employers provide internet strictly for work and that any non-work-related use is dereliction of duty. At this point, most workplaces treat internet access for salaried employees as an amenity as well as a tool, like an office phone. Employers install phones in every cube, even for employees who have no phone-related duties. Despite pretenses to the contrary, the web now serves a similar function for the average office worker.
Obviously, employers have the right to set whatever rules they want for the use of company resources including the web and the phone. If a company wants to ban all web surfing at work, they're entitled to do so. What's unacceptable is treating the internet as an amenity to be used with discretion until you want to fire someone and then selectively enforcing the rules to get rid of them.
Employees should push HR to write realistic, specific, fair guidelines for the use of computer resources. Lawmakers need to protect employee free speech by protecting the rights of employees who blog on their own time.