Third time’s the charm/three strikes you’re out

This is a mostly-blind item/mostly-hypothetical. Feel free to ignore it.

I wanted to comment on a post. I wrote a clear comment. I looked at its probable implications if read uncharitably. I didn’t submit the comment.

I came back at coffee break. Wrote an even clearer comment. Found that uncharitable reading would again cause problems. Didn’t submit.

And just now, lunch break, wrote a truly eloquent comment. Which would also cause problems if read uncharitably.

I think the idea of reading blog posts and comments charitably is great, in theory. I almost feel bad when I point out that a blogger has directly contradicted themselves between a post and a response to a comment on that post. I suppose a truly charitable reading would be that most blog posts and comments are done so much on the fly that internal consistency is too much to ask even within one stream–but at that point, you get to the level of “well, this is all just talk with no thinking, so why bother?” That’s not true, so there’s a limit on charitable reading. I also know that I’m incapable of reading a blog without taking into account the context of the blogger’s other posts and publications (and real-world persona, if I know it), and I’m pretty sure people do the same for me.

And, of course, my desire to read other posts and comments charitably won’t necessarily be reciprocated.

So, just to get it off my chest, I’ll just say this:

If you sign your blog (and it’s surprising how many pseudonymous blogs wind up “signed” because the blogger gets excited about an achievement or something and posts an identifying page or post), it is not possible to divorce yourself entirely from your place of work.

Period. Can’t be done. Our minds just don’t work that way. (OK, maybe some people can internalize such a work:life split so thoroughly that the connection never occurs to them–but I’ll bet a lot more can’t.)

Worst case: James X, who works for coffee-store magnate S, says something on his blog that really offends Fred Y. James X is clearly writing the blog on his own time and may even have an explicit disclaimer–you know, “Opinions expressed here may not reflect those of S Coffee.” But Fred Y finds the comment so offensive that he says “You know, I’m not going to get coffee at S anymore; they hire people I don’t want to be associated with even indirectly.” He starts going to P’s Coffee instead (or S’s B Coffee, for that matter).

Or, even worse case: Fred Y is a long-time acquaintance of James X’s boss. He may be terribly tempted to call up that boss and say “Are you aware of the idiots you have working for you, and what terrible things they’re saying?”

Maybe even worse than that: S Coffee is actually a membership organization and Fred Y is a member, and Fred Y regards the comment as a personal attack.

But–and it’s a big but–that’s an inappropriate action for Fred Y to take, if Fred Y believes in free speech.

Not free as in “without possible consequences,” but free as in “no advance censorship, and consequences should be rationally related to the speech.”

If James X starts badmouthing customers at S Coffee as customers, it’s entirely appropriate for Fred Y to call his boss–and for James X to wind up Dooced (doncha love jargon?) or, in English, fired for inappropriate online behavior.

But if James X writes negative comments about something that’s not directly related to S Coffee’s business, and those comments aren’t obscene or hate speech, then Fred Y should recognize that James was on his own time and should have the same rights as anyone else.

It’s a hard line, fuzzy, gray, likely to get crossed from time to time. For now, though, I believe it’s the right line to take.

There’s another question: Should James X think about the consequences of some people being able to completely separate his blog and comments from his job? As an employee, I’d say yes. As one possibly offering advice on blogging, I’d say you betcha. As a general ethical call–no, I’m not willing to make that call.

Meanwhile, if I was in a position to make the other kind of call, I’d like to think I wouldn’t. Not that the situation has ever occurred, of course: Then I’d have to put my beliefs into action, never quite so simple.

20 Responses to “Third time’s the charm/three strikes you’re out”

  1. Jennifer says:

    Without a doubt, it is all highly complicated. When I started blogging, I was incredibly hesitant about putting my name on it. If I put my name out there in the public sphere, it would be fairly simple for anyone to figure out where I worked (my name is all over the web page of the library where I work). After blogging for awhile, I felt the anonymity was actually a hindrance. I decided to take a leap of faith that most people (at least in the library blogging world at least) would understand the personal nature of the blog. I also decided to let my boss know about my blog. Basically, we all need to understand that there are always possible consequences to everything we do – more so when we publicly engage in discourse and discussion.

    I will admit that to follow poor James X’s saga with Fred Y and magnate S, I had to reread your post several times. That was a wee bit of a brain teaser 🙂

  2. Steve Lawson says:

    Boy, glad to hear that Jennifer had a hard time with X and Y; I was starting to flash back to the GRE there for a minute.

  3. I’m almost there with you. Almost. Totally agree that complete divorce from one’s job is impossible — but you knew that; I’ve posted enough on liminality.

    Where I hang a sharp left turn is… some behaviors, though they can’t be pinned down to any specific relationship with one’s job, are so skanky that it gives cause to wonder “okay, they *hired* this person? Intentionally? And they let him/her get away with this?”

    My not-quite-blind, not-quite-hypothetical: I struggled with this a lot of last year, with a specific group of people who were prone to a specific constellation of unacceptable behaviors that just plain got my back up. Their defense was “this is not a professional context, therefore this constellation of behaviors is permitted and will even be applauded and vigorously defended.”

    Then these people started running conferences and stuff. Even so, they’ve yet to recognize how badly (from a PR perspective) they need to get rid of the skank, never mind that the skank is… well, skank.

    I avoid them en masse; I simply do not trust them to behave acceptably. Several of them I do my best to avoid individually. I have no compunction whatever about counselling in private and occasionally in public that others avoid them as well (and I hear the meme is spreading, though apparently *not* because of me). I don’t think I am personal/professional line-crossing in so doing.

    There’s also a discussion to be had regarding jobs that specifically involve interaction with the (or a specific) public. To my mind, their holders carry higher responsibility in terms of interaction tone. But my sense is I’ve already lost that one, so I’ll concede it; public figures can be as nasty as they wanna be as long as they wear the “it’s private!” figleaf.

  4. walt says:

    So if I’d said “Xander” and “Yostin,” it would have been easier to follow? Sigh; betrayed by my math minor (and the substantial logic element of rhetoric) from college.

    Dorothy: I don’t entirely disagree, and that’s where the hypothetical and the real get in conflict. Sufficiently skanky behavior will reflect on the employer, like it or not.

    Separately, saying “I can’t deal with so&so” or “I’ve been knifed in the back by so&so, you might want to be cautious” is human and something I wouldn’t rule out. I’m saying that somewhat-out-of-line behavior done outside of the work environment doesn’t necessarily call on me to make a workplace issue out of it–but there are always degrees and exceptions.

    Note that what you’re saying/doing in the next-to-last paragraph is *not* going to their employer and saying “Can these idiots!” And note that I don’t say speech should never have consequences; you’re applying non-work consequences to non-work speech, and that’s the real world. I don’t have a problem with that; speech *does* have consequences.

    The last paragraph–well, yes, public figures should (and frequently do) bear higher responsibility. I agree. The excuse “but it’s on my own time” can readily be met with “so I’m not going after your employer, but you’re still a jerk and really should know better.”

    The primary ethical guideline for most (but not all) societies handles most of this–treat others at least as well as, and similarly to how, you’d want them to treat you.

  5. Steve, yes – very much like the GREs. I almost drew a diagram.

    Walt, I thought you actually explained it all very well. My brain got some good exercise with this post (and to me that is a good thing). And a nice reminder about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. That too me is what should underline the charitable reading concept – give people the benefit of the doubt as you would expect from others.

  6. So when do we get to tug somebody on the sleeve and say, “Hey, you know what? You’re making yourself and people around you look kinda bad. You can fix it, though. Give it a try!”

    Does it matter whether “people around” the offender is family, professional circle, professional association, employer? Does it matter whether you’re friends/colleagues with the person acting out?

    Should the sleeve-tug be private (chancy in some cases; private lashback can be frightening, and private sleeve-tugs can be easy to ignore), semi-private (e.g. talking to someone with some influence on the offender), or public?

    In the meta-case we’re not actually discussing, the tone of the sleeve-tug was serious bad news, no denying it, and the perpetrator is ashamed of that. It unquestionably should have been done better (and the perpetrator *has* done it better on other occasions).

    My question is, should it be done at all?

    (But then, a couple of search committees I’ve been on have instilled a powerful desire to grab applicants by the lapels, shake them until they’re paying attention, and give them a detailed resume proofreading/critique. Meddler. That’s what I am. And no, I haven’t done it; I’m terrified HR would come after me with edged weapons. It’s just sad to see people eliminating themselves, is all.)

  7. walt says:

    I think you get to tug somebody on the sleeve any time you think it’s appropriate. I think it’s particularly appropriate if you’re a friend or colleague.

    The question is when/whether you should contact the person’s employer for dumb moves the person’s done on their own time. That’s where I think it gets tricky.

    But telling someone “You’re being a jerk, and it’s not helpful” — OK, you’re being more diplomatic — is, I think, always reasonable. After all, wouldn’t you want someone to tell YOU if you were being a jerk? (See basic principle.)

  8. Jennifer, I wish you would draw a diagram, because I (admittedly a bear with little brain) had a devil of a time following Walt’s example. (To give Walt credit, though, I understood the main thrust of his argument with no problems.)

    Yep, keeping professional and personal separate can be difficult. I’ve seen the same arguments rage on in an entirely different arena (the web forums devoted to tabletop role-playing games), but it basically has boiled down to this: some people are absolutely able to separate one member of a business or organization saying something they don’t like from the business or organization as a whole, and other people are not and will cease dealing with a business or organization if one member has pissed them off. It’s a crazy world we live in.

    Oh, and “charitable reading” doesn’t mean never taking anyone to task for things they’ve written or said. Sometimes, people are intellectually dishonest or otherwise badly behaved. Nothing wrong with calling people out on that.

  9. I’m not sure that’s the only question, though, Walt. The other part of the question is when you get to say (privately and/or publicly) “You know, what you’re doing, even though it’s nominally on your own time, reflects really badly on your employer.”

  10. walt says:

    Joshua, no disagreement on the last paragraph, and sorry if my examples were a little opaque.

    Dorothea, I have the same answer: Whenever, at least privately (and semi-publicly). It’s another aspect of “You’re being a jerk,” namely “You’re being a jerk, and people can’t help but notice that you work for Walt Mart.” (“walt mart” being a fairly common search term that reaches this blog, which may say something about the customers of a certain chain that I won’t shop at)

  11. walt says:

    Now that this post has evoked a surprising amount of first-rate discussion (surprising for an odd, semi-blind, hard-to-follow post), I think I should clarify one other thing:

    I’m really saying “This is the way I believe I should behave, even if I don’t always live up to it.” I guess I’m also saying “This is one reasonable way to behave.”

    I am not saying “This is the only reasonable way to behave” or “This is how everyone should behave.”

    I’m observing, not setting myself up as a guru.

  12. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I pretty much got that, Walt. I don’t really expect guru-y preachiness from you. OMMMMMMM…

  13. walt says:

    On the other hand, Joshua, expect an essay/chapter in the February C&I that does, among other things, suggest the virtues of contemplation (and deep breathing). I still am one of those Left Coast types…and probably always will be.

  14. I hear you, Walt, and the reason I weighed in is that I’m working this through for myself, too.

  15. Wendell says:

    Two things I learned early on about my work (involving the public and public/charitable funding): all life is a job interview, and say it if you must but never put it in writing.

    Then I found blogging. It was a place to say meaningful things in writing. And, not surprisingly, what I found most meaningful was never far from my vocation of choice.

    What we say has consquences: does that mean be quiet? I’m a bit of a moral coward where my (future) income is concerned. I’m often (always?) uneasy when I put words in public print. Public. I think, more than “in the workplace”/’outside theworkplace” its that publc character that is at the heart of the issue.


  16. Ryan says:

    I say that telling someone (publically) that they are being a jerk is not very tactful. Or rather, you better be very right about the jerkiness before you make that call, or risk appearing jerky yourself.

    As a consumer, I don’t often see the connection between the jerk and the employer, unless it’s something really heinous (eg. fraud) and/or I wasn’t really happy with the firm in the first place. Taking the “how could a company actually hire this jerk” line seems unnecessarily judgmental in my view, especially if I like the product/service the employer is selling me.

    Going to an employer for merely jerky behavior ought to get a quick “thank you and we will look into this matter” (meaning “get a life”). This, of course, would depend on a few things though — is this person a public representative? Did the jerkiness include some level of abuse or harassment? Fraud? Indecency?

    And then you have cases like Donald Trump and Simon Cowell whose jerkiness is a part of their employment.

    There are alot of really competent jerks out there. Studies show that people are apt to prefer the incompetent “nice folks” over the competent jerks and that this preference is usually a mistake on the employer’s part from a GTD point of view. It’s hard to say, but quick, efficient and effective service with a scowl is better in my view than slow, inaccurate and otherwise crappy service with a smile.

  17. It is a tough call whether (or when) it is appropriate to tell someone they are basking in the light of jerkiness. Ryan makes a good point that one has to be extremely careful about it lest one tars themselves with the same brush. I think a great deal depends upon people’s relationships with each other. I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling people I thought their behavior was reflecting poorly upon themselves unless I knew them – nor would I do it in a public venue. The online environment adds another level of complexity. I can exchange comments, emails and blog posts with people, but do I really know them? At what point, does one’s relationship become viable enough to handle this type of personal criticism?

    This conversation is fascinating and gets to the heart of many of my own worries about engaging in public debates. My name is my own and I don’t believe it should reflect upon my employer at all. It is very scary to think that it could, but that is the reality of life in the age of the internet.

  18. walt says:

    All good points, which is why this is a difficult discussion. Ryan, I would note that there are different kinds of jerkiness, but I don’t argue with what you’re saying. (And “jerk” was my deliberately mild term for a variety of different violations of interpersonal norms in semi-polite society.)

    I will say that: “My name is my own and I don’t believe it should reflect upon my employer at all” is, as I said in the original post, not really completely possible–and I don’t think it ever has been. If a schoolteacher in a small town was catting around with the head pharmacist at the town drug store, on their own time, and wasn’t pretty discreet about it, you could bet that the school and the drugstore would both get involved to some degree. Maybe the internet has made “small-town connectedness” much more widespread and peculiar, but the principles are the same.

    Maybe this shouldn’t be true. Maybe work and personal life should be entirely separate. But I don’t think they ever really have been, and I don’t think that’s likely to change. In most cases, all you need is a modicum of common sense. (A working “internal censor” might be nice, but I’ve never been very strong on that account, so…)

    Jennifer–Just for fun, I reviewed the past month or so of Life as I Know It. There are things there I might disagree with (as you’d expect). I’ve seen nothing that I could imagine would have the potential for causing you trouble in a work situation (OK, I have a lousy imagination, but)… You don’t beat up on people; you do discuss ideas, honestly and articulately. You don’t write in a way that would appear that you’re indirectly speaking on your employer’s behalf–and you don’t tell secrets about your employer or coworkers.

    We should be able to discuss ideas forcefully, honestly, openly, with no fear of reprisal. Some of us may avoid certain topics because there’s no good way to prevent the assumption that we are, somehow, speaking on our employer’s behalf, but that’s pretty rare for most people in libraryland.

    The odd thing is that this is all about fringe cases; based on my liblog, list, and traditional-media reading, I’d say between 95% and 99% of discussions don’t cross any lines you might care to draw.

  19. Although I don’t think that what comments are made away from one’s work should reflect upon one’s employer, I definitely agree that this isn’t something that can be controlled (we can’t control people’s reactions to our ideas or thoughts). It is a very muddy area. And, really this isn’t just about work. People will make judgements about the organizations, groups, etc that others belong to based up their public comments. They will even make judgements about people’s family, friends, etc. Fortunately, I think you are correct Walt, that we are discussing worst case scenarios that happen relatively infrequently. Despite this, I think this topic is hugely important – especially given the way that blogs and the like are changing the ways in which we relate to people both personally and professionally.

    Thanks for the great discussion!!

  20. Mark says:

    Sure would have liked to have gotten in on this discussion, but this post and the movie post and [e]press post just showed up in my Bloglines! 8 PM+ on the 21st. Grrrrr.

    I can live with lots of folks stuff showing up late but not WaR!

    I have to say, one hypothetical comment made me check the date on something not really written by someone posing as me. Whew!

    Now back to slagging Coyle and Hillman on my own time.

    Oh, and I agree with everyone. This is a highly complex topic with a line that completely disappears as one approaches it.