Monday, September 27, 2010

A person is not their job

I'm not going to comment specifically on #groggate, because I think Grog's Gamut did it perfectly well himself.

What's pissing me off is the whole notion that once you are employed, everything you say and do, 24/7 is owned by your employer. This results in a lot of brokenness. It means that companies tell their employees that they can't tell anyone (at the pub, or online) that their employer sucks. It means that people who dream up some invention can have the patent taken from them, even if they used no job specific knowledge to come up with it. It means that expressing opinions anywhere that their employer might hear/read it, on their own time, as a private citizen, can get people sacked. I think this is fundamentally wrong. Employment isn't an ownership relationship.

I understand that this is partially a consequence of our society trying to get to its collective head around new media, and whether or not saying something on Twitter is the same or different to saying it at the pub. What I don't understand is why corporations are answering the questions without consultation with the rest of us.

The other thing I don't understand is why companies all assume that the public can't differentiate between an employee and their employing organisation. Honestly, my opinion of a company is unlikely to change much based on the comments of any individual employee. There are disgruntled employees, there are employees of all political persuasions working for most organisations (except possibly The Australian), there are alcoholics, drug addicts, misogynists, volunteers, feminists, and people with all sorts of barrows to push. I'm not going to judge any company based on one employee being any of those things.

Which is not to say I'll never judge an organisation based on some of the predominant traits of a large proportion of their staff. AFL, NRL, I'm looking at you. Patterns of behaviour may indicate real issues. But that is really, really different from Joe Blogger and his opinions on the election, or someone's ill-conceived tweet. Why can't the company simply issue a "We do not endorse this opinion" statement? If it was a really bad gaffe, they could go so far as to say "We strongly disagree with/are disgusted by this opinion, but support the right of employees to have their own lives outside of work hours". Can the public really not understand that any given person is not identical with their employer?

The line between person and employee may need to be renegotiated, but I'm tired of having the new world order dictated by the likes of Telstra, The Age and The Australian.


  1. In general i agree with you, however i did want to make a point about "people who dream up some invention can have the patent taken from them, even if they used no job specific knowledge to come up with it".

    If your contract says that (like mine does) and you're willing to sign it (like i did) for what you consider appropriate remuneration, then i see no problem with this (assuming no coercion, misrepresentation, fraud, etc).

    As i see it, a component of my pay is for the little bright ideas i have in the shower and feedback to my employer, even in areas not related to my work. I don't have a problem with that. People who do have a problem can (and do) negotiate different terms.

    Are there asymmetries in that negotation ? Of course, and nothing's perfect. However, i have a strong resistance to patronizing restrictions on the deals i am allowed to make.

    Anyway, i'd better shut up before this becomes a blog post, not a comment :-)

  2. I think there's room for appropriately negotiated arrangements, and you are certainly lucky enough to be both capable and in a position to understand and consider rejection of such a contract. However, the cleaner at the glass factory who had his patent taken by his employer probably wasn't.

    IP law on the whole needs a massive overhaul anyway, but I think this is an example of where employers have had it all their own way without question from the public as a whole. Yeah, sure, some employers are going to remunerate appropriately and still come up with reasonable contracts, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be looking at how legitimate these contracts are.

    I must admit though, I'm a little guilty of not having even a proposal for how to implement this. I'm thinking vaguely of something like an independent IP review board who might look at what percentage of any given patent should be awarded to employer and employee. The cleaner, for example, wasn't being paid for his bright ideas, but on the other hand, had he not been cleaning in a glass factory, he wouldn't have had the idea. So an independent review might award 10% to employer and 90% to employee or whatever. The reality of such a thing, though, I don't have high hopes for. Somehow I can see standard percentages being awarded for standard circumstances (and am put in mind of fixed dollar amounts for amputation of various body parts). I guess I just think this should be debated, not just left to the benevolence of Big Business.

    (and this is just about as long as the original blog post!)

  3. There's also the uni-dimensionality of it - if I say "A Bad Thing(TM)" that my employer doesn't like, they'll move to sack me. Yet I hear no stories of the employer who gave out an unsolicited bonus, a raise or a promotion based on tweets, blogs or other online conduct

  4. That's because teh interwebs are All Bad. No good can come of it (ask News Ltd). /sarcasm

  5. I agree and wrote on this exact topic some time ago: I agree and wrote on this exact topic some time ago:

  6. AMEN to this! As a public servant myself, I have experienced being warned that "If you want to stay working for this organisation, don't ever mention it in public." even when they were objecting to a statement I made that WASN'T about my workplace! I've been told "People get sacked for what they say on Twitter/Facebook" - again, when I actually hadn't said anything about my employer.

    I'm very fed up with the attitude that my employer owns me. I love my job, and I'm passionate about what we do and why we do it, but I am still ME and MINE.

    It's time that employers learned about the true culture of the internet and not what they imagine it to be (or are sold it to be by the media) and realise that their employees are human beings with lives, opinions and thoughts of their own.

  7. I'm wondering if any smart thinking employer (or at least an employer who likes to be seen as smart thinking - like Google) might start to advertise sensible non-work hours policies to attract staff.

    Certainly if ever I get to the point of employing people, I will be.

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