“How blogging almost got me fired” [remorse]

Today’s story is courtesy of a friend of mine – I will call him “Jack” to preserve his anonymity and spare him further problems. I’m going to tell you Jack’s story and lessons learned (sans details) as a caution about engaging in social media.

Let me start by giving some background about Jack and his situation. Jack is a smart guy. He’s been in his current field over a decade and is well-respected by his company, “Smart Guys, Inc.” and his clients. He maintains a professional blog on a network that is shared between a sort of consortium of  different organizations. The time he spends writing to this blog is directly tied to his client work and they in fact encourage him to blog (and cover his time to do so). He typically writes about his area of expertise in order to share his knowledge and insights with a large community of users. Due in part to his blog, Jack is known and respected among a large audience, most of whom he’s never met in person.

bart_chalkboardRecently, Jack got in hot water because of a post he wrote. Frustrated with two products from another organization (“Megacorp”), he wrote a post criticizing these products but omitting nearly (key word) all details. It is important at this point that you know that Megacorp provides client work to Smart Guys and that Smart Guys, Megacorp, their clients, and many others in the consortium can all read his blog.

In a writing style typical of many blogs (and reflective of his personality), Jack started with a punchy, sarcastic introduction, then laid out a logical and thoughtful critique along with his recommendations for a better solution. His post received many comments within the span of a couple of weeks.

Jack is a careful blogger with plenty of experience. He goes through a “best practices” checklist before posting a new article. This includes tests such as:

  • Would I say this to a person/people face-to-face? Check. Jack realized that while his sarcasm might be received differently in person, the objectivity and thoroughness of the post would demonstrate his intent to provide constructive criticism.
  • Am I being objective? Am I sticking to the facts? Check. While his post contained anecdotal, personal experiences as well as hypothetical data, the key points of his argument were objective.
  • Is what I have to say meaningful and constructive? Check. Jack addressed an issue of wasting people’s time and recommended alternative solutions, both of which were worthy of attention and input from the wide audience on the blogs.
  • Is this topic pertinent to my job/role/client? Check. The products Jack criticized were similar to those he creates for his clients. With his depth and breadth of experience, he is well-qualified to speak to the matter.

Author’s note: I had the opportunity to read Jack’s post in its entirety so I can speak first-hand of its contents.

Once past this personal blogging gauntlet, he felt confident publishing the post.

And so began his troubles. Ironically, the same transparency that helped him build his reputation also helped open a huge can of worms.

Megacorp – the organization set in the cross hairs of Jack’s criticism – happened upon the post nearly three weeks after it was published. Even though Jack had sanitized the details, enough details remained to lead someone at Megacorp to deduce that they were the subject of his post (Author’s note: Probably a guilty conscience and a bruised ego). Based on key phrases Jack used in the post, Megacorp concluded that the post – in and of itself – could be used as a basis to launch an investigation of their company (a major legal deal). And since his blog is tied to his user account, it took a minimum of detective work to piece together who he was and what his connection was to Megacorp.

There were not happy.

At some point as it shot up Megacorp’s chain of command, Jack’s leadership was contacted and a demand issued for his termination along with a threat of a lawsuit against Smart Guys.

Author’s note: This response is a testament to the game-changing nature of social software and a fundamental shift in paradigms that requires individuals and organizations to change. This change includes putting ego aside in favor of direct and candid feedback.

Within less than 24 hours, the following events then transpired:

  • Megacorp big-wig contacts Smart Guy big-wig.
  • Smart Guy big-wig sends emergency email down the chain to Jack’s supervisor.
  • Jack’s supervisor defends his intentions and integrity while agreeing that a mistake was made. According to Jack, the actions of his manager probably had the single greatest impact on the resolution of this incident.
  • Jack meets with his supervisor to discuss the gravity of the situation. They agree that the post should be removed and a letter of apology issued to the Megacorp big-wig.
  • Jack removes the post and drafts an apology which is reviewed by Smart Guy big-wigs before sending to Megacorp.
  • Megacorp acknowledges the measures taken and realizes that there was no malicious intent.

Jack knows this incident will impact his “hall file” (unwritten reputation) for a long time to come. This is unavoidable, but he hopes to restore his reputation through continued high quality service to his clients and by educating other Smart Guy staff about the “dos” and “don’ts” of engaging in social software platforms.

Lessons learned

  • Watch your tone. Blogging is an art form. It requires a writing style that is both entertaining and engaging, but it should also be authentic and respectful. Jack crossed the line in some of his comments.
  • Avoid inflammatory words. In a face-to-face conversation, sarcastically saying someone is a “fraud” might be seen as humorous (and there’s no official record). In a blog post, it could be seen as libel or defamatory. And it is a written record which, in some cases, could be used as evidence to support an official investigation of wrongdoing.
  • Do not use details if they are not necessary. Jack realized afterward that he could have made his argument with as much impact without including details that could implicate Megacorp.
  • Do not let your ego destroy your career. While Jack could have stuck to his guns, it would have cost him a job that he has enjoyed more than any previous jobs. By removing his ego and pride, Jack was quickly able to apologize and help resolve the situation.
  • Do not bite the hand that feeds you. In other words, unless it is over a ethical or legal issue, do not pick a fight with those cutting your paycheck. Jack might have been fine if his target was another company that Smart Guys did not do business with.
  • Learn from mistakes, but do not be afraid to make more. Another person might be tempted to abandon all forms of self-expression after experiencing this conflict. Jack is not one of them. He plans to continue blogging and following his new lessons learned.

As a blogger myself, I take these lessons to heart. There is definitely a balance to engaging in social software sites. That balance is even more critical when using enterprise (internal) social sites.

Do you think Jack made the right decision? Should he have blogged what he did in the first place? Should he have defended the assertions in his post? Do you know someone who has or could make a similar mistake? Please share stories and tips in the comments!

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5 comments

  1. Brian Drake · May 30, 2009

    Adam– First, this was a very engaging and thoughtful blog. In my experience, being explicit has some pitfalls, but ambiguity can also cause difficulties. For instance, I often open some of my blogs with “I had a recent client experience . . . ” Many people think that I am talking about them, but more often than not. Sometimes I’m talking about something that is not even my own client. It may be someone else’s client that I am consulting on and sometimes its work that is not yet sold. And still, the “hall file” rumors circulate and in many ways its worse. Now those you reference anonymously begin to see conspiracy and read-in additional, non-applicable context to everything you write. Once you become aware of this dynamic, then you start to self-censor on topics that have nothing to do with the Oliver Stone-types, but you fear the repercussions.

    Once again, great post. [Now, where did I put my attorney’s business card . . . ]

    Like

  2. Prindl19 · May 30, 2009

    Jack should have written a single word in his coerced apology, “Nuts!”

    Like

  3. fantomplanet · May 30, 2009

    I did, I did write “Nuts!” Then the management told me to stroke the ego of the powers that be.

    Like

  4. fowlerg · May 31, 2009

    An interesting read and I think a good set of lessons learned. I suppose I would quibble on only one point. Doing what Jack did in Social Media is, in my view, no different than other forms of “thought transmission,” which is what basically a blog is in its first post.

    Said another way, your lessons learned could apply equally to Jack having provided his thoughts in a speech or conference presentation, a conversation that was subsequently quoted, etc.

    The issue of intent strikes me as one of the most interesting parts of all this. What was Jack’s intent with the original post. Why post? Why choose that particular media? Or, that particular topic. Etc.

    Agree with Drake too that anonymity or vague references, while perhaps protecting one from liable, can have the unintended consequence of having the broader audience read into your message things that were unintended or simply not there. Of course, one might say “that’s their problem, I didn’t write/say that”, but as Drake notes–perceptions impact one’s hall file, and that is a concern for each of us. Each of us are impacted by how we manage that file.

    Thanks for a most thoughtful post. You write quite well.

    Like

  5. mrmerlot · May 31, 2009

    @fowlerg and @Brian Drake, the point about removing details creating more trouble than it is intended to prevent is one I hadn’t thought of before. I think in Jack’s case, he could have written the post in such a way as to apply the principles and recommendations he was suggesting without any details about specifics. However, as anyone knows, it’s the details of a story that make learning and applying such principles come alive and real.

    @fowlerg, as for intent, it is my understanding that Jack wanted to use two personal events to instruct and recommend a better course of action. What is even more interesting is that he included himself in his own rebuke, admitting that he, himself, had been at fault in similar circumstances. Unfortunately, his self-deprecation wasn’t enough to ward off the fragile egos of the targets of his post.

    Like

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