Depending on your blog reading habits, you may already have heard the news that feels almost like cosmic justice that a law firm has rescinded an offer of employment from a third year law student whose online activities the firm found troubling. The linked posts will give you some flavor for those activities (as will this post), so I’m not going to go into the gory details here. However, I wanted to say a few words about this comment Amanda Marcotte made on Sheezlebub’s post on the matter:
While it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, I simply have to voice my unease with the politics of personal destruction, even when done for the right cause. Getting people fired is the right’s strategy. (I know.) Scalp-collecting bothers me to no end. Granted, we didn’t do anything to get him fired, but needless to say, I have to protest any and all attempts in the future to separate a person from his job because of his opinions in a non-work capacity.
(Bold emphasis added.)
You may recall that Amanda left her job with the Edwards campaign because Bill Donohue’s Catholic League decided to make Amanda’s personal views into a big issue for Edwards. (Arguably, Donohue did this by misrepresenting her views, which strikes me as an ethical violation of the bearing-false-witness variety, but I’m just giving you the background for Amanda’s comment.)
Anyway, the issue I want to examine is the separtion between work and non-work conduct and opinions, especially as they are manifested on the internet.
I don’t think an employer (or a prospective employer) has a prima facie claim to control what’s in your head or what you do when you’re not at work. The boss doesn’t own you, although the boss certainly can impose restrictions on what you do on the job. And, I think it would be really out of line for an employer to bug an employee’s house, tap his phones, and pay off his friends to spy on the employee.
I’m not sure that means that an employer has no interests in what an employee does on his own time.
There are some professions where, conceivably, a person’s non-job-related activities or opinions might run directly counter to her professional responsibilities. (Can you be a professor of geoscience and advocate publicly for Young Earth Creationism on your own time? Can you run a group advocating for peace and spend your weekends putting pipebombs on buses?) In those instances, I still don’t think I’d want an employer getting into the surveilance (or brain-probing) business to determine that employees have no thoughts or deeds disqualifying them from performing their jobs.
On the other hand, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for employers to keep an eye on public signs of character that might be relevant to job performance. And the internet is public.
Talking in the public square is valuable to us not just because it lets us express ourselves, but because we do so in circumstances where we may influence someone else’s way of thinking. Blogging makes the public square the whole wired world. How you conduct yourself in the public square is the kind of thing people may connect to your character. To the extent that your boss has access to the public square and that your boss has an interest in your character, it would seem wise that you conduct yourself in the blogosphere as if people were watching. You can’t call for a do-over just because your online behavior didn’t influence someone else’s way of thinking in precisely the way you wanted it to.
There are ways to partake of the internet while preserving some measure of privacy. Blogging under a pseudonym (and being serious about keeping your online and real-life identities separate) is one approach. The HTML-savvy can deploy code that minimizes search engine indexing of their pages. And, there exists blogging software that lets you restrict who can actually read your posts.
Still, since there seem always to be technical ways to defeat privacy measures, if one is really determined to keep private thoughts and opinions private while getting them out of one’s head, bound notebooks and diaries might be the solution. But maybe you don’t want to leave them lying around at work.