Blur, Facebook and the First Amendment

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The opinions expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily represent the views of my current employer. This disclaimer will make more sense as you read on.

Ten years ago, the book Blur: The Speed of Change in the Connected Economy was published. Blur looked at how three factors in the wired world—speed (instant communication and computation), connectivity (shrinking space between people, ideas and things) and intangibles (value without physical goods)—were increasing the rate of change in business and the world at large. This included the blurring of boundaries between work and home, made possible in part by wireless networks and always-on connectivity to the Internet.

Fast forward a decade, and the average knowledge worker now contends with evolving technologies and societal trends that make the 1999 notion of “blur” seem quaint. Compartmentalizing home and work is extremely difficult for most of us. We answer work emails while watching our kids' soccer games on Saturdays, yet we also manage many personal tasks using a company-issued PC while in the office.

Lately, the more interesting blur for me is that one can never shed his work persona online. When people express themselves on personal blogs, Facebook and LinkedIn, some would say that they are acting as de facto, yet unauthorized, company spokespeople. If one works for pharma and chats online about gardening or photography, that's probably OK. But if that same person decides to offer opinions about the industry, FDA, the practice of marketing or some other aspect of his job—without disclosing any specifics about his company—is that a violation of his employee contract?

Recently, a colleague of mine parted ways with his employer. He was a product manager by day and a relatively popular YouTube comedian at night, making his employer uncomfortable. When he ventured into making personal videos parodying the practice of marketing, his First Amendment rights collided with his employee Code of Conduct. Other conversations I've had with agency professionals confirms that this is becoming an issue for any public company concerned about its image, and its liability for what employees say on their “own time.”

Joe Shields is product director, Enbrel, at Wyeth

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