Tuesday, 4 September 2007

No flip flops in the office: or, why business casual just don't work in a law firm

Recently Librarian in Black had an interesting post regarding honesty and blogging about work. She came to the conclusion that there was no happy medium - honest blogging is both career suicide and honest sharing at the same time. And I rather agree with her.

This isn't an issue we talk about a lot, but it has been coming up more and more recently. There has been some critique of the bibiloblogosphere, saying that we're not critical enough, and that we don't deal enough with contentious issues. There isn't enough dissent and there isn't enough discussion of what actually goes on in the workplace. And I think that this is an interesting issue to address.

I can't help but think that this is (or should be) more of an issue with library blogs - we are, inherently blogging about work (you may be a librarian by vocation, but it is still ultimately a job), but everyone is still too scared to talk about the specifics of what we do. There is, as LiB said, too much of a fear of reprisal. It is, however, this fear of reprisal (and the reprisal itself) that I find disappointing and strange.

We're not, by and large, a cantankerous or troll-y bunch. I can count the kerfuffles I've seen in the bibiloblogosphere nearly on one hand, nothing like the average of most internet communities (and even when there are slight dramas, they are very rarely on the scale of internet warfare seen elsewhere). We're not likely to say things that are massively detrimental to the workplaces in which we work, or the people whom we work with. At worst, I expect we may be slightly snarky, and there may be a slight workplace politics hiccup following a potentially 'difficult' post, if there were any at all. And, essentially, we are librarians blogging for other librarians. Where we work within institutions, our non-library colleagues are very unlikely to see what we have written, even if we are well known within the library-blogging fold. And our library colleagues and peers are likely to be sympathetic to the workplace troubles and frustrations that we all share.

But, sadly, our workplaces tend to be unsupportive of this honesty and sharing. It is uncomfortable, and unfamiliar, and they don't know what to do with it. They may approve of, or at least accept, blogging as an academic medium, in which we can wax lyrical about the state of the information profession, and where the industry may be heading, or as a forum for letting more interested people find out about interesting new tools and services. But they are uncomfortable with what I think of as business casual - the ability to be professional, and take your work seriously, whilst still being a separate person, with ideas and opinions that may not always align with what is best for the company. I see my role in this blog as a business casual role - this is something I do for myself; I love the reading, writing, and conversations that I get to participate in from being part of it, and I would be (and was) blogging in some other capacity if I didn't have this blog. But this is also a professional venture - this is a way of meeting other professionals in my field, expanding on my knowledge of the sector, improving my skills, and, ultimately, being better at my job, and any future jobs I will hold.

It is this business casual idea that makes me understand why in other professions it doesn't put you at a disadvantage to have a blog. In industries where it's ok to wear business casual to work, it's probably ok to be writing business casual as well - think advertising, design, consultancy, and other types of web work and bleeding-edge millenium industries.

And this is where I think the frustration lies. We are web-workers - we are sharing in the zeitgeist of new technology. We know what the most engaged minds of our generation are thinking and doing. We are using the tools that they are using, and sharing the thoughts that they are thinking. We engage in the same communities, and participate in the same practices. But we are not them. They work from without, while we work from within. They work in industries where free-thinking and opinions and open-ness are valued, whilst we still, by and large, work within large dinosaurs of organisations, unable to keep up with the changes, even when they would like to.

I can't help but think that it's somewhat unreasonable to expect bloggers to never hold, or at least express, a negative opinion about their workplace, but would indeed, if I were employer, rather than employee, relish and appreciate the honesty and personality of my employees being able to express such an opinion. But, at the same time, I know that it's hard for our lumbering dinosaurs of organisations to keep up with the nimble leaps and jumps that modern webworkers make.

And I don't know what the answer to this is. If we challenge the system we will get knocked back (note: my shocking absence on Twitter and Facebook during the working day at the moment). But if we don't challenge the system we won't change anything. Personally, I believe in pushing the rules as far as they will let me go and to hell with the consquences! What do you think?


Connie said...


What you say hits very close to home. Support for raising one's professional profile if you are not a lawyer can be sparse. Even with positive support, the climate can quickly change without warning.

For myself, I have slowly come to the realization that for job satisfaction I need to incorporate my understanding of social media into my work. So, it is frustrating if I cannot take part in these conversations.

For now I try to limit myself to outside of work only, but long for the day when this is really part of my work. My workplace will ultimately have to change one way or another. ;-)

I too believe in pushing boundaries, but not everyone is at the stage in life or with circumstances to allow them to do so.

Whatever you do, be true to yourself.


Scott said...

You are of course correct (don't let anyone know i said that) but at the same time wrong. I work in a firm where it's ok to wear business casual to work, CC has been like that for 4 years or so, but it is still NOT ok to be writing business casual as well, if doing so from a CC view point _ at least not in my experience.

That said, I agree with connie in be true to yourself.

steve said...

One thing that I found helpful when working in-house, was to critique the industry rather than using examples based upon one's ongoing work. It also helps to blog about solutions or alternate courses of action, rather than simply griping. Things don't always have to remain positive, but backing up one's negative response will reflect better on the individual and on the connected employer.

I understand what you're saying, and believe that employers in the future will need a thicker skin when it comes to employee profile. But that said, employees also need to watch the separation of personal and professional. If one's blogging is professional and connected to the employer, then behaving in that manner is required - especially when it can be connected back to the employer.

Very few people can 'free-wheel' in our society without recourse. And there's no magic eraser for a bad web blunder, except admitting to one's mistake. And even then, damage control can be difficult.

I don't think dialog should be repressed. But I also think professional discourse is more effective (and reflects better on everyone) when kept on the constructive & positive side of things.

hypatia said...

I agree with what you have all said - this was a rather idealist rant, and I know that this is pretty unrealistic in terms of how the real world, and real workplaces, actually work. As much as I may love it in theory, I can't imagine that any workplace, no matter how liberal, would really be comfortable with complete honesty in an employees blog, even one not officially affiliated with the employer.

I do think that the onus is on the individual to write appropriately though, not on the employer to proscribe this. I want to be able to write honestly, but at the same time, my blog isn't a forum for me to gripe about workplace greivances, or talk about sensitive work topics. I think that the difficulty can sometimes lie in finding this mid-point - what might to me seem like an innocuous but interesting post related to my work, might seem inflammatory and dangerous to an employer.

This is still a learning curve for everyone I think, with both employers needing slightly thicker skin, and bloggers needing to treat their workplaces sensitively when they need to.

Connie said...

You are right, it can be a fine line. Steve has given some fantastic guidelines that will help you keep from going astray. I would suggest you could always email one of us (who have commented thus far) and pass a potential post past us, whether it might get you in trouble or not.

These are definitely important lessons to figure out, the earlier in your blogging career the better.