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August 11, 2008

Citibank VP fired for pseudonymous blogging

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.

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Comments

This guy is a hundred-million dollar sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen. Even if he's pure as snow in his actual interactions with women employees - and how likely is that? - the company would have no defense against a false accusation, once his computer was searched. His actions are jeopardizing his employer for far more money than he's ever made for them. And he certainly knew what he was doing was impermissible - like all managers at Citi, he's had hours of training in sexual and racial discrimination law. They had to get rid of him. It's not even a close call.

He promoted the blog at work? Very bad move. You always want to be behind three screens behind the stage.

I know a bunch of people at Citi, and this may come up in conversation.

But Renee Zelwegger? I like her! He needs to get fired for being mean to her!

You're right, bloix. In this case, McCarthy's blog was posing a direct threat to his employer. Maybe also because the guy was going to make public appearances at industry gatherings to talk about the blog!

In general, employees' private online speech needs more protection. This isn't a First Amendment issue. So, we need new laws to protect the average person's ability to take part in the public sphere without fear of economic retaliation.

The internet should give ordinary people a chance to participate in the public sphere on their own time and their own dime without having to worry about retaliation from employers. We need to act to protect free expression before it becomes a luxury of the self-employed and the independently wealthy.

Wow that was just the most losin'est blog I've ever seen. How on earth could you be a VP at a huge conglomerate like that and still be such a juvenile sad sack?

Citibank was right to take a stand against hate-speech. Glad to see a big company doing the right thing.

I don't at all uncomfortable with this firing. As a VP, he's a very public representative for the company, and it makes sense for the company to fire him if he has views that they don't want to be associated with. But on the more general issue:

It is completely unreasonable for employers to be able to fire employees for blogging on their own time.

Are you saying that it's illegal for employers to fire employees for their private speech, or merely that they should not? I know very little about labor law (and if I am wrong, would appreciate a clarification from one of the legal eagles out there), but my understanding was that generally, companies can fire you for pretty much any reason that crosses their fancy, so long as it doesn't fall under one of the explicitly stated classes in federal or state antidiscrimination laws (race, religion, military service, etc. . .), or violate the company's written termination policies. This firing doesn't seem to fall under any protected class that I can think of (unless misogyny is a creed?). I think a company could probably legally decide that paper clip sculptures were offenses worthy of firing. It might not be the best decision on their part, but I think it would be legal.

I think you're right about the current law, AH. I think the law needs to change. Public speech as a private citizen deserves the same protected status as religious observances. I

If you preached in your local church on Sunday, your boss would have a hard time firing you for expressing your views in that context. I don't see why a letter to the editor or a blog post deserves less protection than views expressed in the course of a religious ceremony.

I don't see any kind of problem with identifying certain high-profile managerial positions as requiring a higher level of discretion in behaving in a way that would reflect poorly on a company. McCarthy made a self-interested, non-distressed decision to place himself in that position, and he would have to be an idiot to feel blindsided by the idea that his pseudonymous publications, if linked to him, would be an issue. So who cares that he got fired? It's perfectly reasonable to advocate norms that protect people under genuine economic pressure from censorship from their employers. But who cares what freedom of speech someone gives up for a few extra millions?

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.

I think it's pretty common to look for legal ways of firing/suing someone who's causing you problems.

It's worth noting, as alluded to above, (and if you want lots and lots on the subject, read Eugene Volokh), that hostile environment harassment/discrimination law makes it nearly impossible to protect speech from economic retaliation.

How on earth could you be a VP at a huge conglomerate like that and still be such a juvenile sad sack?

Keep in mind that in finance companies, being a "Vice President" means you have an MBA and got a promotion after being successful for a few years. Just about everyone you meet over 30 who works in finance has been promoted to "Vice President." It doesn't mean to imply that he controls a division or has a public position.

Lindsay, I hate to say it, but this whole discussion reinforces my opinion that, somewhere along the line, you became too much of an inhabitant of Bloggy World. In Bloggy World, folks wrapped up in blogs deserve special consideration and the Real World norms just don't apply. Of course, if there was a titanic energy catastrophe tomorrow and Bloggy World ceased to exist, the folks who get a pass hereabouts would revert to being garden-variety assholes and bigots.

My argument is exactly the opposite. There's nothing special about speech on blogs.

I think American employers have too much discretion to fire people for their self-expression outside of work, period.
Other countries have much stronger safeguards. Our society would be a better, fairer place if we changed the laws to protect worker's freedom outside of work.

Your employer shouldn't be able to fire you for self-expression on your own time--whether it's preaching in the park, or taking a second job as a stripper, or sending hand written-letters to the editor of your local broadsheet.

The principle at stake is that your boss doesn't own you, she hires you to do a specific job. Stuff you do on your own time shouldn't be grounds for dismissal unless it can be shown that your extracurricular activities directly harm the company's bottom line or interfere with your work performance.

I like Aeroman's suggestion that there are certain categories of highly visible, highly compensated employees who are deemed to represent the company in their day-to-day lives and who can therefore be expected to adhere to a higher standard when they're off duty.

In this particular case, Citibank probably had a legitimate cause to fire the VP--namely because his blog was exposing the company to a major financial risk in the form of a sexual harassment lawsuit. Also, it sounds like he volunteered to speak about his blog at an industry gathering, which would cross the line between his personal and professional lives and expose him to legitimate penalties at work.

If this guy were my employee I'd be looking to ditch him just because he's creepy, spells a lot as one word, and I wouldn't want him near anything I may eat or drink. That said though, whatever he says on his own time is his own business as long as he keeps it out of company business. You are not your job and your boss' authority extends only until five o'clock, period.

Internet use/abuse is just the latest of many crappy excuses used to sack employees. People buy the idea mainly because it's new. I met some oilfield workers from Bakersfield a while ago who told me that whenever the oil companies need to lay people off they test everyone for THC. Since a joint smoked on Saturday will yield a positive test result on Thursday, and given many roughneck's recreational habits, the company can shitcan as many people as needed without bothering with any sort of compensation.


Lindsay,

--> "I think AMERICAN EMPLOYERS [emphasis mine] have too much discretion to fire people for their self-expression outside of work, period. Other countries have much stronger safeguards. Our society [The U.S.] would be a better, fairer place if we changed the laws to protect worker's freedom outside of work." <--

And therein lies the rub. Our labor laws have devolved to a lop-sided pro management level. Organizing is near impossible. Going the administrative route for a ruling of unfair labor practices is an exercise in futility.

Ralph Nader is the only presidential candidate with a platform plank that specifically provides an easier process for organizing.

--Ralph Nader is the only presidential candidate with a platform plank that specifically provides an easier process for organizing.--

Would this include taking away the secret ballot for employees? The proposed abusive practice that George McGovern spoke out against?


Expand Worker's Rights by Developing an Employee Bill of Rights

The rights of workers have been on the decline. It is time to reverse that trend and begin to give workers, the backbone of the US economy, the rights they deserve. Workers need a living wage not a minimum wage; access to health care and no unilateral reductions in medical benefits and pensions for current employees and retirees. Employers should not be able to avoid these benefits by hiring temporary workers or independent contractors. The privacy of employees needs to be vigorously protected. The notorious Taft-Hartley Act that makes it extremely difficult for employees to organize unions needs to be repealed. It has resulted in less than 10% of the private workforce being unionized, the lowest in 60 years and the lowest percentage in the western world. Non-union workers need upgraded rights against the likes of Wal-Mart.

Labor Day: A Call for Rights for Working People

Washington, DC: The Nader Campaign joins Paul Tobias of Workplace Fairness in calling for a civil rights movement for workers. Under current law, a worker's freedom is subordinated to employer property rights.

The general rule of law for employees is employment at will: an employee can be fired for any reason, no reason, or a bad reason, without recourse. Workers gained rights in the early twentieth century when the union movement developed, with workers joining together to bargain with employers. But that movement was stalled by laws that put up barriers to workers' joining together in a union. The civil rights movement for workers should seek a Bill of Rights for Workers, including the right to organize a union and the right to earn a living wage for all full-time workers.

America's working men and women have been abandoned by the corporate-dominated two-party system. The evidence is everywhere. The percentage of union members in the private economy has dropped below ten percent, the lowest in over sixty years. At the heart of this decline are labor laws which throw insurmountable barriers before organizing efforts. A professional class of public relations consultants and lawyers has evolved to counsel employers on ways to take full advantage of the Taft-Hartley Act in fendeng off organizing efforts. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) gives employers plenty of ways to prevent workers from exercising their supposed right of freedom of association.

The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 makes it extremely difficult for employees to organize unions and should be repealed. Among the key provisions of

Taft-Hartley

* Taft-Hartley authorizes states to enact so-called 'right-to-work' laws. These laws undermine workers' ability to build effective unions by creating a free-rider problem workers can enjoy the benefits of union membership in a workplace without actually joining the union or paying union dues. Right-to-work laws increase employer leverage in resisting unions by enabling them to benefit from free riders. Vastly decreased union membership follows, dramatically diminishing the unions' bargaining power.

More at http://www.votenader.org/issues/labor/workers-rights/

Ralph Nader is the only presidential candidate...

Ralph Nader isn't a presidential candidate; he only plays one on TV.


AARRGGHH! But clever.

I'm a former citibanker and I would like to add some comments if I may. I'm a Belgian citizen and here in Belgium we are laughing a lot of ourselves (the privilege of tiny countries maybe). Some 5 years ago, several people at Citibank Belgium were fired because of sending jokes by emails (ie to my knowledge nobody was really offended by the jokes, till one day the joke arrived to an homonym in New York). So I'm not questionning the decision for I don't have the details but what I want to point out is that implementing a global policy that tries to take into account all cultures, well that policy will be vague. And something that is vague will be interpreted; And something that is interpreted will end up in actions that may not be accepted.

So what Citigroup needs to be aware of is that anything that may impact the "blogging attitude" of citibankers will end up in a major loss of revenues for Citigroup.
check this presentation, a masterpiece explaining that "Shift happen"
http://www.slideshare.net/jclarey/meetcharlene

now after this presentation , imagine Charlene, as a citibank employee, forgetting facebook, twitter, blog, ....only relying on citibank's intranet to increase her knowledge, her efficiency, her enthousiasm... well, well...


PS then again, solutions to allow employees to blog exist. Some CEO are blogging , check their blog, they have a disclaimer..

PPS totally different. I'm setting up a project entitled: "building a better bank for a better world"... and I'm looking for suggestions, arguments, advice, ... well a debate. If you are interested in exchanging on the topic , tell me. alainhemelinckx@gmail.com


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