Blogger sacked by Waterstones

by Chris Bertram on January 12, 2005

British bookselling chain Waterstone’s have sacked employee Joe Gordon from one of their bookshops in Edinburgh . Gordon’s offence seems to have been remarks made on his blog, The Woolamaloo Gazette. Charlie Stross, who seems to know quite a lot about this case , reports that Gordon has been an enthusiastic and valuable promoter of science fiction over many years and that this looks like a really nasty attempt at corporate restraint of speech. Our campus bookshop is a Waterstone’s, but there are many alternatives nearby (and online). I shan’t be providing them with my reading lists or buying books there (despite enjoying a 10 per cent academic discount) until this case has been satisfactorily resolved. Others should do as they think fit.

{ 39 comments }

1

jet 01.12.05 at 12:41 pm

This is probably common enough it is worth a dissertation. A friend of mine just lost his job when he used his blog to vent about work.

So if you are a spiteful employer who wouldn’t mind firing those who disagree with you about non-work related issues, just google your employee’s names.

2

Daniel 01.12.05 at 12:56 pm

Please give us an email address we can send our protests to.

3

mw 01.12.05 at 1:01 pm

Huh? An employee can’t be fired for bashing his boss or company in public on the Internet? Why on earth not?

Or suppose, as it’s claimed, that the blog wasn’t the ‘real’ reason–that the real reason was conflict with new management resulting from a decision to de-emphasize Sci-Fi? So what? Companies are allowed to change what products they focus on and what ones they don’t (even if the decisions are stupid ones as this one may have been). And employees sometimes object to these changes and there is strife and it gets to the point where the employee is more trouble than he’s worth and is let go. Is that illegal in the UK? Should it be?

Casting all of this as a ‘free speech’ issue seems silly. At least here in the US, the right of free speech has to do with *government* restraint — it doesn’t guarantee your right to say anything you like and have nobody take that into account. If the CEO of Waterstone’s gave a public speech in support of the BNP and customers decided to boycott Waterstone’s because of it–would that be violating his ‘free speech rights’? Of course not.

4

Ginger Yellow 01.12.05 at 1:20 pm

I’m not going to comment on the specifics of the case, because I haven’t read enough about it, but if every employer sacked every employee who slagged off their boss in public, there’d be full unemployment. Also, it seems a bit odd for someone so keen on sci-fi and graphic novels to work in Waterstones. They are terrible for those genres. The only store I’ve ever seen with a halfway decent collection is the Piccadilly megastore. Even that has just a small rack for graphic novels, considerably smaller than the Charing Cross Rd Borders or Foyles collections. Why not Borders, or somewhere dedicated like Comic Book Showcase or Forbidden Planet?

5

x 01.12.05 at 1:39 pm

What a dumb thing to do for a company. Your employee throws in a joke or two at your expense on his personal weblog, which couldn’t possibly harm your reputation in a million years, but instead of ignoring it you act like a paranoid bully and sack him, thus bringing the whole thing to the attention of the national press! (not to mention, thus also proving whatever said employee wrote about you being a jerk!) applause!

Someone should sack the manager who sacked this guy. No one that stupid should be in charge of anything.

6

chris waigl 01.12.05 at 1:56 pm

Casting all of this as a ‘free speech’ issue seems silly. At least here in the US, the right of free speech has to do with government restraint — it doesn’t guarantee your right to say anything you like and have nobody take that into account.

Apart from the case not pertaining to the US (and why would you write “here” in the US on a site that’s not “here in the US”?), this issue does have to do with free speech and its protection. I am not someone who liberally slings the term “censorship” around, but in the UK (and many other places “here” in Europe), a company must provide a good, legally sanctioned reason to fire an employee. That’s where the state comes in. So, yes, it’s about free speech, once removed.

Interesting in this context is this bit from BBC Scotland featuring Tom at Random Acts of Reality, and an anti-blog employer, who actually says things like “if they work for me, they can’t have a blog” (not even, “can’t write about my company on their blog”).

7

Sharon 01.12.05 at 1:58 pm

I haven’t read through the archives of the blog so I’m not commenting on the merits of the case, and nor should anyone else without reading and deciding whether its content justifies the decision or not.

We’re getting these knee-jerk reactions to cases like this in complete ignorance of what was written. (Just because the sacked employee says it’s unfair doesn’t prove that it is.) If you blog (in an identifiable manner) about your workplace or your bosses or colleagues, it’s a public space. If you behave in a manner that would get you disciplined or sacked in any other public space, then the same standards should apply.

And remember: if we as bloggers simply always give undiscriminating approval to the blogger in these situations, it will make it that much harder to make the case effectively for those who really have been unfairly dismissed. We need, I think, some guidelines about what is and is not acceptable behaviour, and then we need to apply them and stick to them.

8

x 01.12.05 at 2:08 pm

We’re getting these knee-jerk reactions to cases like this in complete ignorance of what was written.

Actually the ignorance technically speaking is yours – if you had followed the link to the Guardian story, you’d have seen they print at the bottom of the page the blog posts in question.

Which is only obvious because it is part of the story they are writing about.

9

Backword Dave 01.12.05 at 2:09 pm

Daniel, email addresses are on my blog here.

10

Ginger Yellow 01.12.05 at 2:30 pm

Have read a little more, and it seems the company fired the employee with no warning and no due process, which gives him a very strong case for unfair dismissal. The company would have to prove gross misconduct, which would be hard in the circumstances. A friend who happens to be a union rep at Waterstones thinks the company hasn’t got a leg to stand on. He would say that though.

11

des von bladet 01.12.05 at 2:32 pm

It seems to me that the UK, where our tale is set, has laws on unfair dismissal (Gnash your teeth and wail, Libertoonians! Louder – I can’t hear you!) with which Waterstone’s are likely to become better acquainted if they don’t think better of this.

But they can also wave goodbye to my custom for the forseeable, the petty bastards.

12

mw 01.12.05 at 2:59 pm

Apart from the case not pertaining to the US (and why would you write “here” in the US on a site that’s not “here in the US”?)

Uh, maybe because I’m here in the US? I could have just said ‘in the US’ but in that case I could have been someone from anywhere commenting about the US.

And what does it mean to say that the site is not ‘here in the US’. As far as I can tell, the site is not anywhere in particular in physical space–it’s a group blog whose bloggers are from various countries (including the US).

As for not pertaining — issues of speech and employment law are definitely pertinent to the US. There have been similar cases here.

I am not someone who liberally slings the term “censorship” around, but in the UK (and many other places “here” in Europe), a company must provide a good, legally sanctioned reason to fire an employee.

Then it is about employment law, not censorship. But it would seem very odd that publicly bashing one’s employer would not be grounds for termination (and by publicly, I mean intentionally ‘published’ writing on a web site accessible anywhere on the planet–not just a comment accidentally overheard at a coffee shop). Or do we think opinions published on blogs are of no consequence?

So, yes, it’s about free speech, once removed.

Once removed? In other words — not really about free speech or censorship.

13

mw 01.12.05 at 3:01 pm

Apart from the case not pertaining to the US (and why would you write “here” in the US on a site that’s not “here in the US”?)

Uh, maybe because I’m here in the US? I could have just said ‘in the US’ but in that case I could have been someone from anywhere commenting about the US.

And what does it mean to say that the site is not ‘here in the US’. As far as I can tell, the site is not anywhere in particular in physical space–it’s a group blog whose bloggers are from various countries (including the US).

As for not pertaining — issues of speech and employment law are definitely pertinent to the US. There have been similar cases here.

I am not someone who liberally slings the term “censorship” around, but in the UK (and many other places “here” in Europe), a company must provide a good, legally sanctioned reason to fire an employee.

Then it is about employment law, not censorship. But it would seem very odd that publicly bashing one’s employer would not be grounds for termination (and by publicly, I mean intentionally ‘published’ writing on a web site accessible anywhere on the planet–not just a comment accidentally overheard at a coffee shop). Or do we think opinions published on blogs are of no consequence?

So, yes, it’s about free speech, once removed.

Once removed? In other words — not really about free speech or censorship.

14

Timothy Burke 01.12.05 at 3:43 pm

This particular blog, reading back, ranges over a variety of subjects, but he does talk about work sometimes. That’s become a recognizable species of blog, the “workplace blog”, with many of them operating in a kind of Dilbert-Office Space-The Office domain, telling tales of dysfunctional work cultures.

Given how much of a genre this has become, it’s reasonable to expand beyond this individual case and begin to ask, “How in general should employers react to the ‘workplace blog’?” I think many of us would concede that if a workplace blog became an active assault on a company as a whole, or exposed major proprietary information without any end besides malice, it would cross a line that would justify the employer responding harshly.

But that’s not the case here, and it’s generally not the case with workplace blogs. A well-run front office should have nothing to fear from an ordinary workplace blog–in fact, they ought to welcome them. They don’t have any impact on how customers feel about the business as a whole, and they provide the kind of window into how the business is functioning on a day-to-day basis that upper management can’t get any other way. That’s the optimistic argument.

But even if upper management can’t see the value in encouraging honesty (and as Joe Gordon observes, also in the cathartic value of getting employees to vent *away* from the office) there’s a bottom floor issue. Namely, that a free society needs to allow people to speak their minds about everything, especially including what happens to them for the eight hours (or more) of the day that they go to work. The right to protect corporate image and proprietary data needs to be an extremely narrowly construed right. Haven’t we seen that in the last five years of corporate scandal, that allowing companies to exert broad controls over the information they release to the public sphere is a recipe for disaster? Even a hardcore free-market advocate or libertarian needs to see information as one of the few things that companies should not be allowed to control tightly, both for the sake of free speech in general and for the sake of the functioning of markets in specific.

15

Chris Bertram 01.12.05 at 3:44 pm

At least here in the US, the right of free speech has to do with government restraint….

This is probably worth a blog post all of its own, but for now I’ll just note, that J.S.Mill (for one) had a somewhat broader conception of the issues than do people who think free speech = US first amendment.

16

David Tiley 01.12.05 at 3:49 pm

If you blog about your employer in a way which is recognisable, then yes, you should be vulnerable if you damage the company. Biting the hand that feeds.

But if you don’t damage the company, or the place is not recognisable, then you surely must be free to do what you want.

I must say this seems like a fabulous opportunity for Joe to get a job that fits his obsessions and talents.

17

Jacob T. Levy 01.12.05 at 4:23 pm

One of my recurring cautions to my fellow libertarians is: given the existence of legislation that sets bounds on contract terms (e.g. employment legislation that restricts termination conditions), it’s silly to assume that no one would have contracted for the same protection. Indeed, we expect that people would contract for lots of protections they find valuable, trading off, for example, some wages in favor of some protection against arbitrary or bad faith dismissal. Lots of people don’t like living in a pure employment-at-will universe.

In the real world legislation mandates that trade-off– and presumably gets priced into the wages paid. We may disapprove of the mandatory character of the rule, imposing the same trade-off on everybody. But what we can’t do is look at an employee who was given a compensation package that included a little less money in exchange for procedural protections, then was sacked without benefit of procedure, and say, “But the employer ought to be free to do that!” In the counterfactual universe the employee might have contracted for the protections; in the real universe the employee wasn’t paid what he would have been paid in the absence of the (valuable) protections. Either way, there’s no reason to just rah-rah the employer or assume thatthe employee’s entitled to nothing.

Another caution is that not everything that is relevant to freedom is a matter of rights. I would say, though I would also say that this is the most one can say, that this case has nothing to do with the right of freedom of speech. There I hew to a pretty strict state-action rule. But to say this has nothing to do with free speech is odd. Restrictions that aren’t legal censorship might not violate a person’s rights but might still be inimical to a Millian culture of free speech. It’s of course not the case that just anyone can say just anything just anytime and never have to face a consequence for the speech. (And it’s also the case that sometimes people talk as if that were a valid principle.)

But still. A private university shutting down a student newspaper because of its content is a free speech issue, albeit not a First Amendment issue. If we value free speech, we tend to think that’s a bad thing to see happen, modulo certain exceptions for universities that are themselves devoted to a particular doctrine. Private universities firing professors for the expresion of their views is a very bad thing (ditto). And so on.

Finally, note that Chris didn’t start off by calling the firing illegal, or calling for its reversal in court. He said he’d boycott the chain– a social response to a social speech suppression.

18

Ginger Yellow 01.12.05 at 4:26 pm

“If you blog about your employer in a way which is recognisable, then yes, you should be vulnerable if you damage the company. Biting the hand that feeds.”

There’s libel laws for that. Although, obviously, if you can prove libel you can prove gross misconduct.

“Even a hardcore free-market advocate or libertarian needs to see information as one of the few things that companies should not be allowed to control tightly, both for the sake of free speech in general and for the sake of the functioning of markets in specific.”

Any self-respecting hardcore libertarian should be familiar with Celine’s Second Law: “Accurate communication is only possible in a non-punishing situation”. In other words:

“This is a very simple statement of the obvious, and means no more than that everybody tends to lie a little, to flatter or to protect themselves, when dealing with those who have power over them, especially the power to punish. (this is why communication between parents and children is notoriously befoolzled).
Every authoritarian structure can be visualized as a pyramid, with very few at the top and very many at the bottom, as in the flowchart of any corperation or bureaucracy. On each rung, participants bear a burden of nescience in relation to those above them. That is, they must be very, very careful that their natural sensory activities as conscious organisms—the acts of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, drawing inferences from perception, etc.—be in accord with the wishes of those above them. This is absolutely vital; job security depends on it. It is much less important—a luxury that can easily be discarded—that these perceptions be in accord with actual reality.
For instance, in the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, the agent had to develop the capacity to see godless communists everywhere. Any agent whose perceptions indicated that there were actually very few godless communists anywhere in this country would experience what psychologists call cognitive dissonance: his or her reality grid was at variance with the official reality grid of the pyramidal authority structure. To talk about such
divergent perceptions at all would be to invite suspicions of eccentricity, of intellectual wiseacreing, or of being oneself a godless communist. The same would apply to any Dominican Inquisitor of earlier centuries who lacked the capacity to see witches everywhere. In such authoritarian situations, it is important to see what the authorities see; it is inconvenient, and possibly dangerous, to see what is actually there.
But this leads to an equal and opposite burden of omniscience on those at the top, in the Eye of the authoritarian pyramid. All that is forbidden to those at the bottom—the conscious activities of perception and evaluation—is demanded of the master classes, the elite and the super-elite. They must attempt to do the seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking,
and decisionmaking for the whole society.
But a man with a gun (the power to punish) is told only what his target thinks will not cause him to pull the trigger. The
elite, with their burden of omniscience, face the underlings, with their burden nescience, and receive only the feedback
consistent with their own preconceived notions. The burden of omniscience becomes, in short, another and more complex burden of nescience. Nobody really knows anything anymore, or if they do, they are careful to hide the fact.”

19

Backword Dave 01.12.05 at 5:08 pm

I’ve been reading the Woolamaloo Gazette, and there is nothing at all about his boss in December. There is one entry in November. His email newsletter preceded his employment at Waterstone’s and seems to be part of the reason for his hiring.

Of course companies can fire employees. They can’t just fire long-serving workers (whom third-parties freely testify worked hard) without reason or warning. I’m not blindly siding with a blogger; I’m boycotting Waterstone’s because Joe’s rights have been violated, and for once I can do something about it.

20

zach. 01.12.05 at 5:28 pm

maybe a bright side to all of this is that an enterprising sf publisher or promotional company could enlist joe’s services, and promote him beyond booksalesman.

although i tend to agree with mw on the legal aspects of this, there’s no question that this was a stupid move by waterstone’s. hopefully joe can make the best of it, because i doubt he’ll get his old job back.

21

Mrs Tilton 01.12.05 at 5:30 pm

I’m boycotting Waterstone’s because Joe’s rights have been violated, and for once I can do something about it.

Leaving to one side the question whether the company violated the blogger’s rights (in the sense that he can get a remedy at law), they have acted churlishly. Even assuming arguendo that their action was perfectly legal, everybody who disagrees with them is entitled to express that disagreement in a number of ways; including holding them up to public ridicule and bringing one’s custom elsewhere.

22

djw 01.12.05 at 6:27 pm

Jacob’s final point seems to hit on the crux of the matter. Whether or not the firing was illegal is a point of U.K. law I’m utterly unqualified to speak to. Reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom and justice of the law, but that debate is orthogonal to the question of whether the law ought to be applied in this case.

But all that stuff is irrelevent to the boycott question. Those of us who substantively value free and open speech and expression ought to be prepared to fight for it on multiple fronts. To the extent that governments restrict or violate it in opposition to their own laws, we should oppose such activities through legal means (and other means as well). To the extent that the chilling effect on free and open speech is coming from a non-state entity that isn’t violating any laws, we’ll have to adapt different tactics. The opponents of free speech do this through boycotts of advertisers of speech they don’t like. If we value a substantive culture of free speech, defending the first amendment won’t be sufficient. We’ll need to fight these tendencies on their own turf, using appropriate methods. That seemed clear enough to me.

23

HP 01.12.05 at 6:35 pm

It’s worth noting here that sometimes bosses are mean, stupid, incompetent, and arbitrary. Sometimes management policies are poorly conceived, badly executed, or counterproductive.

It’s also worth noting that Waterstone’s has not accused Gordon of making libelous or defamatory statements on his blog. So we can safely assume that any policies or practices Gordon ridiculed are accurately depicted.

It seems to me that if a blogger employed at SampleCo, Ltd. reports accurately on managerial stupidity, and this damages the reputation of SampleCo in the market, the fault lies squarely with management for being so stupid.

By shooting the messenger, Waterstone’s has simply compounded their stupidity several times over. (I’d never heard of Waterstone’s before this, but I know where I’m not shopping should I visit the U.K.) Had Waterstone’s management been smart and capable to begin with, Gordon would have never had anything to complain about.

I’m not a libertarian, but I would hope that an honest libertarian position would not require that capital be protected from the consequences of its own incompetence.

24

Jeremy Osner 01.12.05 at 7:26 pm

There’s a place for everything and everything should be in it’s place. Freedom of speech is entirely proper and well-suited to owners of property; when it is granted to the parasitic propertyless, it leads only to chaos and the breakdown of society.

25

John T. Kennedy 01.12.05 at 7:42 pm

There’s no restraint of speech here; Gordon is still free to blog anything he likes, isn’t he?

26

washerdreyer 01.12.05 at 8:15 pm

It’s already been said, but it is always amazing to see one person writing that they are going to boycott a store and then to watch others respond, “But the stores action is legally permissible.” If you think the stores action is optimal, that is a different situation, but no one seems to be saying that.

27

Andrew Boucher 01.12.05 at 8:36 pm

washerdryer: I’d agree. The company can (morally or legally) fire if it wants; and Chris can (morally or legally) boycott in response.

On the other hand what the company did was unbelievably stupid, bringing itself into disrepute far beyond what the blogger would have ever managed to do on his own. That is, even if you *can* do something, you shouldn’t always *do* it.

28

Backword Dave 01.12.05 at 8:54 pm

Ah, Mrs Tilton is correct, ‘rights’ is probably not the right word. I was thinking of Joe’s own thoughts on the matter.

I’ve read a couple of months of Joe’s blog now; and he’s mentioned the evil boss once; he’d didn’t slander the boss, as what he said was clearly (even without the disclaimer) his opinion. Neither of his accounts of being denied a day off (which he asked for over a month in advance), nor his disciplinary hearing have been disputed by Waterstone’s. Firing him for an old blog post without warning is unfair and heavy-handed. (It’s not good management either.)

I should say that I wrote to the manager in Waterstone’s in Edinburgh, copying my email to my local branch and their flagship store in Piccadilly (which is the closest thing to a head office I could find) and received a reply from London within 10 minutes which was polite and said, “Unfortunately we cannot comment on this matter as it is confidential between the company and the employee.” Well, it’s nice to know that complaints get read.

BTW, both Waterstone’s in Cardiff (where I live) have good science fiction sections. They have little on the comics front which they’ve left to Forbidden Planet.

29

Jasper Milvain 01.12.05 at 9:06 pm

Aside from the ethics, you might expect Waterstone’s to have realised that ‘Bookshop sacks blogger’ was a highly saleable scandal. Newspapers are still in the child-with-new-toy phase about this stuff, and as for the blogs

On the ‘Why work for Waterstone’s if you like science fiction?’ point, it’s worth noting that, before it was bought out by HMV, this chain had a reputation for giving branches independence. When Joe was hired, he could reasonably have hoped to make his branch the best place in the city to buy SF.

And there’s something of a buyer’s market for bookshop employees. There are more alternatives to Waterstone’s in Edinburgh than in most UK cities, but it’s not as if he can just cross the street.

30

x 01.12.05 at 9:13 pm

“There’s no restraint of speech here; Gordon is still free to blog anything he likes, isn’t he?”

What part of “he lost his job for a couple of silly blog comments” isn’t clear?

Yes, he was and still is technically free to speak his mind, but he had to pay consequences for that. The point is not wether someone literally suppressed his right to speak, but whether those consequences in this case were right or wrong. Since it is a company initiative and not intervention by a government enforcing (or breaking) its own laws about freedom of speech, obviously it’s the wider non-literal sense of that freedom that’s an issue here. But yeah, like others have said, it’s not even about that primarily, mostly it’s about an example of corporate idiocy and arrogance.

31

neil 01.13.05 at 1:12 am

Perhaps someone’s already pointed this out somewhere, but I find it extremely likely that he was -not- sacked because Waterstones thought that it would free them from criticism. More likely, a hot-headed executive or a boss who hates Joe acted out of personal temper, and ended up proving who was -actually- bad for the company.

32

James C. Hess 01.13.05 at 1:20 am

Now we get to the ugly part of Free Speech. First, did the blogger in question sign a pre-employment agreement that explicitly say he could not publically speak out against his employer? Second, what is his former employer’s policy on extra curricular activities? Third, did he reference his employer in his blog? If so, how so? As far as I can tell this is not a black and white matter.

33

snuh 01.13.05 at 2:19 am

At least here in the US, the right of free speech has to do with government restraint

even though i am not “here in the US”, i don’t think this is strictly true. the impact free speech has had on the common law of defamation, for example, would contradict this statement. see here.

34

Nicholas Weininger 01.13.05 at 2:36 am

This hardcore libertarian and SF fan is, for the record, with Jacob Levy and djw.

I’d oppose any law making the guy’s firing illegal, but it’s a damned obnoxious thing to do, and if there were any Waterstone’s around where I live to boycott, I’d boycott it. And Jacob is right on about the desirability of making a better culture come about through one’s voluntary actions. Indeed I think a key libertarian point applying to many issues is that, given the ultimate dependence of firms on consumers’ pleasure, such actions *can* be effective in restraining many types of obnoxiousness and promoting a more open and tolerant society.

35

David Tiley 01.13.05 at 1:17 pm

A sidepoint: consumer power to force an employer to behave reasonably sounds fine. But Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” is in the process of being wrecked by fear of a Christian boycott, as CT has already canvassed.

In this case consumer power is being used to attack the freedom of a production company to make the best film possible, to interpret the work of art. It is not technically an attack on free speech, but the effect is censorious.

36

John T. Kennedy 01.14.05 at 1:02 am

“Yes, he was and still is technically free to speak his mind, but he had to pay consequences for that.”

He remains literally free to speak his mind and he didn’t have to pay anything. He wasn’t entitled to the job except on whatever terms the company was prepared to offer.

37

David Tiley 01.14.05 at 7:40 am

I presume you don’t mean that employers can set any terms they like?

38

dave heasman 01.14.05 at 12:15 pm

“He wasn’t entitled to the job except on whatever terms the company was prepared to offer” says John T Kennedy.
I’ve been appalled on reading about this case on US blogs. Lots of people take the Kennedy position and it’s a shame. Even soi-disant left-wingers like Steve Gilliard. http://stevegilliard.blogspot.com/2005/01/blogging-lessons-1-protect-yourself.html

They seem to identify with an incompetent giant corporation, thinking “that giant corporation could be *me* someday”. Sure it could.

Either that, or they’re so ground down in their own jobs that sounding tough about someone else’s travails somehow ameliorates.
Management objecting to workers telling it like it is is not reality-based. The market, being reality-based, will crush their organisation, sooner or later. But since this sort of management is only involved in self-aggrandisement I guess they can bail out, leaving the workers.

39

snuh 01.14.05 at 11:51 pm

He wasn?t entitled to the job except on whatever terms the company was prepared to offer.

by this logic, one could say that the bookstore was only entitled to the employee’s labour on whatever terms the employee was prepared to offer, which presumably included the protections of unfair dismissal legislation.

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