First UK blogger fired for blogging

In the first case of its kind in the UK, blogger Joe Gordon from Edinburgh has been sacked by his employer Waterstone’s for a few mildly negative comments he made about his job on his satirical blog, The Woolamaloo Gazette. Joe was warned shortly before Christmas that he was going to be subject to a disciplinary hearing for gross misconduct for bringing Waterstone’s into disrepute, but due to the festive season the hearing did not take place until 5th January. The hearing found that he had ‘violated the rules’ and he was summarily dismissed.

In dismissing Joe, though, Waterstone’s has prompted a massive backlash and huge amounts of very negative publicity – the story has been covered by BoingBoing, The Guardian, The Scotsman, The Bookseller, and The Register. Matthew Whitaker, who is a fellow blogger and a friend of Joe’s, is keeping a round up of all the press this story receives, and there have been a huge number of supportive comments on Joe’s own blog with many people writing to the company to complain or promising to boycott Waterstone’s completely.

As a bookseller with 11 years experience at Waterstone’s, and as someone responsible for organising many of the book signings that have taken place in the Edinburgh branch, Joe has the support not only of the blogosphere but also of authors such as Neil Gaiman, Charles Stross, and Richard Morgan.

All in all, this has turned into a major PR gaffe for the company – the blog-savvy media here have all been aware of the possibility of someone getting sacked for blogging because it’s happened several times in America, and they’ve been just gagging for a story like this to unfold here. I predict that it will be picked up now by the wider media, that Joe will get a whole lot of useful legal advice and support, and that Waterstone’s will end up with a large serving of egg on their face. Which will stick.

In the US, employment law exists but is weak – if you challenge your former employer’s decision to dismiss you, you are very likely to wind up on the heap marked ‘unemployable’ even if you win, but the situation in the UK is very different. Tribunals and unfair dismissal cases are taken more seriously, not just by the unions but by people in general. When someone gets fired unfairly, we tend to come down on the side of the employee. We like our underdogs.

My hopes for Joe, on a personal level, is that he gets the support and advice he requires to successfully challenge Waterstone’s and that he gets recompense for his dismissal which, on the face of it, looks very unfair. I also hope that he gets a far better job than the one that he was fired from. But looking at this more broadly, this case brings to light the fact that there has been in general a lack of thought about the issue of bloggers mentioning their work on their blogs and what that means. We need now to have some calm, sensible discussions about the repercussions of what has happened.

More to come when I’ve had a think about it.

2 thoughts on “First UK blogger fired for blogging

  1. I’m looking forward to more of your thoughts on this topic.

    For example, despite the UK’s strong employment laws, isn’t Joe nevertheless in the unemployable heap? After all, who would hire someone who is known to publish negative comments about his employer? Many advise job seekers to avoid negative remarks about current and past employers during job interviews. Surely it’s reasonable to assume that *publishing* such remarks would be equally deleterious.

    I don’t quite understand the up-in-arms reactions from bloggers over this and other similar cases. Firing someone for demonstrating a poor attitude toward his employer seems intuitive enough. On the other hand, I would join the protests in a minute if bloggers had been fired for writing about other things, such as political views, that employers disagree with. But when an employee calls his employer stupid and his job boring, I can’t help wondering if he should have quit long before he was fired, or if he shouldn’t have been fired long before he’d felt he needed to publicly air his disgruntlement. As I understand it, disgruntlement is not an employee’s entitlement. However, employers are entitled to act legally against those who besmirch their company.

  2. I am not an employment law specialist, so I can’t give any more than my understanding of the law which might well be wrong, but you can’t be fired for having a poor attitude – that’s not strong enough grounds for dismissal. You have to actually have done something wrong, and you have to go through a process of verbal and written warnings before you can be fired.

    In this case, what they did was to use the only loophole that they could, which is to claim that he had brought the company into disrepute, an offence for which you can be instantly fired without going through the usual process. However, whether his comments actually did bring Waterstone’s into disrepute is arguable, and there is no certainty that a tribunal will agree that Waterstone’s reputation was damaged in any way by Joe’s blog.

    What Waterstone’s should have done was take Joe to one side and have a quiet word with him that people had seen his blog, that it wasn’t a good idea for him to be discussing work in public. At most, they should have issued a formal, verbal or written warning. Summarily dismissing him was completely over the top, when you actually look at what he wrote.

    The reason that job applicants are advised not to talk about their past employers in a negative manner is the same reason why employers are nowadays reluctant to give written or verbal references – libel and slander. Giving your honest opinion about an ex-employee’s abilities can now land you in such hot legal water that many people either do not give references or give such bland ones that they are useless. Same goes for job applicants when talking about their past employers.

    From what I know, though, Joe did not libel or slander his employers. He may have offended them, but I am not sure that his comments are technically libellous or that Waterstone’s had sufficient grounds upon which to act.

    I do not believe that Joe is at all unemployable now, not in the UK. If anything, an intelligent thing to do would be for some company to headhunt him, give him a better job more suited to his talents and then bask in the glow of positive publicity. He has had so many influential people say positive things about his abilities that most people would, I hope, see that this guy is one worth employing.

    I do worry, though, that we are entering into dangerous territory now, where you are unable to express your natural frustrations with your employer (and no one has a job where they don’t have some bad days) for fear of legal action. Writing online is, obviously, a more permanent record of what you have said but it is a short step from being fired for blogging to being fired because someone said you complained about your job the other day down the pub.

    People and companies are far too quick to litigate these days, far to quick to fire people instead of looking for a solution. If someone is frustrated in their job, their employers should be asking why, and what can be done about it, not firing them.

    I wonder, what are the implications here for freedoms of speech? Is freedom of speech actually an illusion served up to us by the American Constitution? Do employers own us, even when we are not at work? Do they have control over what we say and do in our own time?

    Certainly this requires a lot more thought.

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