Saturday, April 12, 2008


Big news: don't be stupid

What must it be like to have to be a hack writer[1][2] for a bad magazine? I’ve never been a fan of U.S. News and World Report, but sometimes I wonder why they bother at all.

[Update 1, 14 Apr, 1 pm: In the comments, Mark takes me to task for being self-indulgent and critical. He's right. I apologize for denigrating the work of someone who's seriously trying to write helpful material... and who has a paying gig of it, to boot. I didn't mean to be nasty, but I was anyway.]

A friend sent me a column from last month by Liz Wolgemuth. Following the popular theme of “lists”, she gives us five ways you can get fired for computer/Internet use. Allow me to paraphrase:

  1. Violate your terms of employment by letting your Internet use conflict with your job. Alternatively, say bad things about your company or co-workers on the Internet.
  2. Waste time on the computer instead of getting work done.
  3. Surf porn.
  4. Post embarrassing photos of your co-workers or bosses.
  5. Use inappropriate language or topics in email from your work address.

Now, I know that no one could figure any of that out for himself, right? Well, the whole list can be summarized by the phrase that Ms Wolgemuth quotes from Heather Armstrong, who “lost her job a year after beginning the blog for writing entries that involved colleagues.” The advice?: “Be ye not so stupid.”

The problem with articles like this and lists like this is that they ignore the real problem of unreasonable employers and irrational disciplinary action. Anyone can read the list in this column and say, “Well, duh.” But where’s the advice about dealing with the boss who’s afraid of those blog things, and is willing to sack people prophylactically, even when they maintain appropriate work/life boundaries?

When I was 15, I unloaded trucks in a retail-store warehouse over the summer. The warehouse manager had a strict philosophy: “The less we talk, the more we work.” And he enforced that very simply: if he saw your work slow down in the morning, he had you assigned to one of the more unpleasant jobs in the warehouse that afternoon. You figured it out right away.

And if you didn’t figure it out, you were gone; there were plenty of people who needed the job, waiting to replace you.

It’s no different in the Internet world, though it’s that much easier to get sidetracked, easier to run afoul of unwritten (and often unspoken) rules. You just have to feel things out and get an understanding of what’s acceptable and what’s not. And you have to use common sense, and be not stupid. We don’t need a list to tell us that.

[From a more recent column, we learn that people who wear sexy clothing to the office are distracting. Yow! Who knew?]

Update 2, 14 Apr, 7 pm: Ms Wolgemuth has read this and posted a follow-up today, addressing my concern about dealing with the blog-terrified boss. She quotes from Alexandra Levit:

If your boss is threatened by the Internet (I think these types are increasingly rare), then you should still, in the interest of full disclosure, let him/her know that you have a blog, social media profile, etc. and assure him/her that you don’t intend to discuss the company or work matters on there. Your boss doesn’t really have the right to ask you to shut your site down if you keep your word on that.
That’s good advice.

[1] From

  1. a person, as an artist or writer, who exploits, for money, his or her creative ability or training in the production of dull, unimaginative, and trite work; one who produces banal and mediocre work in the hope of gaining commercial success in the arts: As a painter, he was little more than a hack.

[2] OK, but at least I’m a hack writer for my own magaz blog. And I’m not being paid for it.


Mark said...

There may not be anything earth shattering in this article, but I know a few people at my work that could use the advice.
And more, what's worse, an article that has use for the average Joe or the musings a self indulgent blogger?

Barry Leiba said...

Mm. Good point, Mark.
I admit self-indulgence, and, yes: I shouldn't criticize.