Employees let off steam online

When Kristie Helms moved from Nashville to New York City four years ago, she experienced more than a little culture shock. The big-city office politics were foreign to the Southern belle, so she started documenting her workplace woes in an online journal.

"I recorded the nuances of cubicle life," says the communications professional. "Sometimes I wrote about what I was thinking or feeling. Sometimes I included excerpts from my boss's e-mails. I was trying to put the office politics into context."

Like Ms. Helms, plenty of workers are publishing weblogs, or blogs for short. Blogs are websites that allow users to post messages in the form of a diary. Blogs popped up on the Web about four years ago and have gained popularity - and generated controversy - ever since.

Companies like Blogspot and LiveJournal lead the blogging market with services that allow bloggers to begin publishing on the Web within minutes. There are more than 4 million hosted blogs today, according to Perseus Development Corp., a survey-software developer in Braintree, Mass. The company expects the "blogosphere" to exceed 5 million

users by the end of this year and 10 million by the end of 2004. Part of that growth comes from companies that use blogs to cut down on e-mails, faxes, and phone calls.

But legal experts warn that blogs can lead to problems for both employers and employees.

"Blogs can be valuable for storing business communications, collaborating with colleagues, and sharing information with clients and vendors," says John Lawlor, a business blogging strategist and author of the upcoming book "Blogging Matters."

At the Waltham, Mass., offices of Terra Lycos, a global Internet group, some employees use blogs to discuss technology issues while others use them to communicate with salesmen in the field.

"Blogging provides privacy and ... everyone in the group can contribute and share ideas," says Michael Sikillian, senior product marketing manager of Web publishing for Terra Lycos.

Despite the apparent value of blogging, Christopher Wolf, a partner at the Washington, D.C., law firm Proskauer Rose, advises clients not to start internal blogs and to keep a close eye on external blogs that mention the company's name.

"The biggest problem with blogging is that people don't often think as carefully as they should before their fingers start typing," says Mr. Wolf. "Errant thoughts and impulses that are recorded in a blog could someday be used against the company in a lawsuit or simply to disclose to the outside world confidential information or strategies."

There has yet to be any significant blogging lawsuit - except for the Church of Scientology's case against California blogger Diana Hsieh for suggesting that a link exists between Scientology and a firearms training facility. But Wolf says e-mail liability suits are a good precedent for blogging perils. Bill Gates's own e-mail, for example, came back to haunt him in the Microsoft antitrust case.

Legal experts say employers can ban inappropriate internal workplace blogging, but agree that there is little employers can do to prevent external blogs unless the blogger breaks libel laws. Many bloggers remain anonymous to avoid such liability. One website, for example, promotes the "Happy Fun Slander Corner" in which anonymous bloggers defame corporations and leak out internal memos daily.

"Nasty inside information and commentary about companies and management have long been distributed via anonymous message boards and the like," says Rich Hanley, a communications professor at the Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. "Blogging just puts a more formal and routine structure to the rants of disgruntled employees."

Helms's public blog did not disclose the name of the insurance firm that employed her, and she says she refrained from raging rants, instead taking a humorous Dilbert-like approach to blogging. Once she posted all the e-mails her boss sent to her during a single workday and translated the written meaning into the intended meaning.

"My boss wrote, 'Could you please handle this project?' but what he really meant was 'I don't want to do this so I am passing it off to you,' " jokes Ms. Helms, who says she gets e-mails from people all over the country in response to her blog. She still can't figure out why anyone would want to read them or why Firebrand Books decided to publish her blogs in an upcoming book entitled, "Dish It Up, Baby!"

But Firebrand publisher Karen Oosterhous says the fact that blogs are recorded in real time gives them reader appeal.

"Cubicle dwellers love to see one of their own get an edge on management; witness the success of the cartoon Dilbert or the movie Office Space," she says. "The humor, the sarcasm, the emotional defense of the common worker is raw and immediate."

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