Richard Morgan offers support

With the kind permission of author Richard Morgan I’m posting the text of a rather eloquent letter he wrote to my former manager and is copying to Waterstone’s head office:

Dear sir,

I am writing with regard to the dismissal this week of one of your long-time employees, Joe Gordon. As an author who has had dealings with Joe through author events and signings at your branch, I was stunned to learn about the proceedings. I can honestly say that in my experience, Joe has always behaved with the utmost professionalism and enthusiasm, and a brief round of conversations with other authors has only reinforced this impression. He is a valuable member of staff of the sort that any bookstore should count itself fortunate to have.

I understand that this dismissal has been occasioned by comments on Joe’s blog column, which I read on a regular basis and thus am familiar with. While I don’t wish to interfere in company business, I have to say I think this bears comparison with taking disciplinary action based on private conversation overheard in a pub, and raises some disturbing issues of freedom of speech. Waterstones is, after all, a bookseller, whose stock in trade is the purveying of opinion, not all of it palatable to those concerned. You sell books which offer serious critique of the corporate environment and government, but do not expect to suffer punitive action from government or corporate quarters as a result. You sell books which criticise and satirise religious and political groups, but you do not expect to be firebombed by extremists as a result. Surely Joe has the right to let off steam in his free time without having to fear for his livelihood as a result. The action that has been taken so far bears more resemblance to the behaviour of an American fast food chain than a company who deal in intellectual freedoms and the concerns of a pluralist liberal society.

It seems to me that this whole matter has been an unfortunate over-reaction with no positive outcome for anyone concerned. Joe has lost a job he liked and did well, Waterstones the company in general and your branch in particular will attract rather negative publicity from the incident, and there will doubtless now be all the lengthy confrontational unpleasantness of an industrial tribunal. In short it leaves a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. Surely there has to be a more productive way to deal with the issue. I worked for many years in management myself, and I understand well the stresses and complexities of situations like this. But given the value that Joe offers as a participative member of Waterstones staff, and given the issues of free speech raised, I would hope that some compromise more in keeping with a civilised society and an intellectually involved company could be reached.

Though I shall hardcopy this letter to you and Waterstones head office next week, I would appreciate your response to this e-mail as soon as you have the opportunity.

Many thanks.

Yours faithfully

Richard Morgan

Another author, Edinburgh-based Charlie Stross has also posted a very considered opinion on his live journal.

Spreading

Since Cory Doctorow posted the dismissal story on the excellent Boing Boing yesterday there has been a lot more discussion on this matter (Boing Boing also has an interesting related article on companies who have fired staff over blogs – a worrying trend). Quite a few more comments posted here and a number of other web sites discussing the matter now.

I’ve also had some very kind emails expressing sympathy, outrage and support from a wide variety of people, many of whom I have never met, including some people who I can’t name because they work in the book industry in the UK (indeed some actually work for Waterstone’s all around the country) and I don’t want to cause them any problems – nonetheless it was very kind of you to get in touch with me, thank you. Kind words from several writers and editors I have worked with have helped cheer me up. One editor generously commented that I had helped increase the awareness and sales of some of their imprint’s writers. It’s nice to know that so many people appreciated my efforts in bookselling, even if my own company ultimately did not.

As the ostensible reason for my being dismissed was that my sarcastic rambling were bringing the company into disrepute (a rather flexible and nebulous term) this whole shameful debacle has been something of an own-goal for Waterstone’s. The thing is, they must have anticipated that the story would become more widely know if they fired me. Both my union rep and I pointed out that potential bad publicity could be an outcome if I was fired (in a general manner, we certainly did not threaten them with such a tactic).

As this move was supposedly because they felt I was causing harm to the company’s image why then would the company make this move which could only result in more discussion and coverage of their actions, which most folk seem to agree was heavy-handed? It seems to fly in the face of the argument that they were trying to protect their public image. Quite a number of people have expressed their disgust and their intention to go elsewhere for book purchases, so this whole thing has been an enormously counter-productive move and one which need not have happened had reason prevailed.

Among the latest folk discussing developments(not enough time and space to list everyone) are: The Community At Large, Scribbling Woman, The Republic of T (which also has an interesting piece on an international blogger’s rights ‘bill‘), Detrimental Postulation, Cyber Junky, Foreword.

More discussion

More discussion online here at Diverse Books and also on Edinburgers (where opinion is mixed, so let no-one accuse me of not putting in links which include people who do not agree with me – that is in the nature of free speech after all).

In response to some of those there who consider that I am to blame for my current woes, I would re-iterate once more that this is an incredibly heavy-handed response. I did not set out to attack the company in some systematic manner – if I had wished to do so then I could have; I did not. In fact I have over eleven years done much to publicise the company in a variety of ways, nor has my work quality been questioned. You would think therefore that someone with so many years of service would be treated a little more fairly.

Surely the sensible thing would have been for my manager to have a word with me and warn me that the company found this unacceptable? Bearing in mind there is no specific policy on blogs etc, only a very vague ‘bringing the company into disrepute’ which could be interpreted in any way the company sees fit. I and the union offered to cease if it caused such offence and to accept a warning and suggested a clearer policy be issued to guide other staff in the future, but this was disregarded.

There is also the issue of how the company became aware of a minor blog. They would not tell us, even at the hearing, who made the complaint and the nature of it. I think I should know who my accuser is and what they took exception to. Especially since the blog clearly states that it is satirical in nature. It raises issues such as why are companies monitoring their employee’s personal time online (the union has told me of another case where the same company has dealt harshly with a staff member over a web issue (not a blog)) and does a work contract hold sway over your personal life outside of work. I also asked if I were to repeat such a tale in the pub to a friend and the wrong person overheard it would that be a disciplinary breach? By the way they are interpreting the rules, it would seem to me it would, which would be a shameless invasion of your freedom of expression. In the event I did not receive an answer to that question either.

Regardless of personal feelings however, it was a very silly action to dismiss me in this manner since it has made things far more visible, which given the company did not want online discussion to begin with is ironic. If this has been dealt with in a quieter manner I would not now be urgently trying to find a new job and Waterstone’s could have saved themselves from bad publicity and from losing a long-serving and experienced member of staff who always tried to increase the diversity of the range, support good, new writers and encourage others to read them via reviews, author events, nmedia appearances and a book group. Now does that sound like the actions of someone who was setting out to really rip apart the company image? Complaining in a humorous way about a bad day at work is not exactly high treason now, is it?

Fired by Bastardstone’s

“Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want rain without thunder and lightning.”
Frederick Douglass

Over the course of the Woolamaloo Gazette I have posted on a wide variety of subjects; sometimes on books, movies or simply the city of Edinburgh; often on topical and troublesome ones. This however is one of the most difficult I have ever had to write. Shortly before Christmas, in the spirit of that season, my manager at Waterstone’s asked me to come into the office. Within a few, short moments I was told that for comments I had posted on this web site I was now subject to an enquiry to determine if I should face a disciplinary hearing for ‘gross misconduct’ because I had ‘brought the company into disrepute’. I was informed (more than once) that this could cause my dismissal. I was suspended on pay and escorted from the premises of the bookstore I had worked in for over  eleven years.

Because of the holidays the disciplinary hearing was not held until yesterday, Wednesday 5th (although the company tried to hold it right before Christmas, which gives you an idea of their mentality; the union told them no). I could not really talk about it here while the process was ongoing – I am now free to discuss what happened for the brutally simple reason that Waterstone’s dismissed me from my job yesterday. They took great exception to my mentioning of work on my blog. They said I had violated the rules and brought the company into disrepute. I think by their actions they have brought the UK’s biggest book chain into disrepute.

Anyone who has been a regular reader of the Gazette will know that I do occasionally mention my work life, although it accounts for a fraction of my written output. Like many folk I am not always happy at work (I have good days too, I don’t go in miserable all the time as I’m sure former colleagues would attest if they could) and me being me when I mention bad days or annoying occurrences I do so in my own satirical, sarcastic, comedic style. I often put many things into a basic narrative form, add characters etc. So I would coin terms such as ‘Bastardstone’s’ and have a character called ‘Evil Boss’ (my equivalent to Dilbert’s Pointy Haired Boss – in fact I compared head office directives to being in a Dilbert cartoon). I once referred to a chum and former colleague, Olly, when he found a full time IT job after his graduation as being a successful member of the Escape Committee at work. This was brought up at my hearing yesterday. My protest that this was (to me a bloody obvious) spoof on the Great Escape didn’t seem to cut any ice. This will give you an idea of what I faced.

I pointed out that I had not set out to deliberately ruin the company’s image. In fact I don’t think I have even inadvertently; if I had wished to do that then I would have been running less satirical and far more biting comments on a rather more regular basis, rather than commenting from time to time about a bad day at work, a grumpy manager or the like. You’d think I had run a sustained propaganda campaign of subversion.

I pointed out that I did not let my annoyances get in the way of performing my duties at work (indeed no complaint was made about my work) and that, like many bloggers it was therapeutic to vent steam outside of work. I pointed out that I posted these comments in my OWN time, writing in my OWN home for my OWN blog. It’s not linked to any official Waterstone’s site and does not reflect their opinion but mine. The site clearly says (twice) on the header that it is SATIRICAL and that it is my ‘mumblings and rants’. I expressed my own OPINION in my own time, something I am legally entitled do (the European Convention on Human Rights, part of Scots Law since the devolved parliament was brought in expressly guarantees this right). I told them I felt they were violating my civil rights. I told them I have informed my MSP because of this.

Long before full universal suffrage in this country we still had stinging satire (recall those Punch cartoons among many others) – it is an accepted part of our culture and one of the ways individuals have to remind large organisations, be they companies or governments that we too have a voice and a right to use it. People have used satire, sarcasm and humour to make points for centuries. Today that freedom is enshrined in law.

I pointed out that I had over my eleven years promoted Waterstone’s in many ways, sometimes on my own time. I have organised and hosted more author events with more writers for the enjoyment of more book-buyers than I can recall. I have written for the guide books which Waterstone’s had printed on various genres. I have appeared in print media and broadcast, talking on the BBC in my own time about literature, introduced as an expert bookseller from Waterstone’s in Edinburgh. That’s publicity you can’t buy. I had contributed to the Edinburgh International Book Festival when Waterstone’s still sponsored them. I told them that there were numerous authors who would tell them that I had been an excellent ambassador for the company. I even defended them when the company was attacked in the Scottish press for not supporting independent Scots publishers (oh the irony). None of this seemed to matter to Waterstone’s yesterday.

I asked why, if the company did not like me commenting about work on my blog they did not simply have the branch manager have a quiet word with me? Should that not have been the proper way to deal with this? I told the hearing that if this had been done I probably would have refrained to keep the peace. My union rep also brought up this point. We did not get a proper answer to this question. We asked how the blog (which is not exactly high profile) came to their attention and who lodged the complaint. They didn’t know. Enquiries were made during and adjournment. We asked again afterwards. We were told that they were not at liberty to tell us this. So I do not know who my accuser is, which seems rather unfair to me.

I pointed out once more that I was outraged that a company seemed to think it had the right to tell an employee what opinions they could articulate in their own time. I asked if I repeated some of the articles they found offensive in the blog to a friend in the pub would that not also be defaming the company by the logic they were employing here? I was not answered. I pointed out that this was like the Thought Police and invasive of my rights. I was told that if I discussed anything to do with work then I was representing the company and must conform to their rules. Obviously I dispute this strongly – this is like saying we have a new feudal system where companies are the lords and employees are mere serfs who they own. How can I possibly be considered to be representing the company on my own site in my own time? In fact do not most companies around the world have riders attached to their email saying explicitly that any comments within are not necessarily those of the company? So why do they assume I am talking for the company on my own site in my own time? That makes no sense to me.

I am not a serf; I am not an indentured servant. I am a free man with the right of freedom of expression. The company does not own me, body and soul – conforming to their rules at work is to be expected, but in your own time and space? How can anyone be expected to go through their personal life in fear of saying the wrong thing? No-one should.

This has left me dreadfully upset. That a company I have given so many years to could treat me in such a brutal manner is despicable. That a book company thinks so little of the primacy of freedom of expression is alarming. I pointed out that Waterstone’s has stated publicly several times in the past that as a bookseller they believe in the freedom of expression and not in censorship. In fact a campaign was mounted a few years back which had banners along the lines of ‘what did Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot have in common? They feared the power of the written word. Celebrate Freedom of expression with us.’ Some folks may recall it. I asked if this was actually meant or was it simply cynical marketing? I was not answered.

I have never been fired in my life until now. I have never even been unemployed – I worked my way through college (that’s when I began at Waterstone’s). Now I find myself having to urgently try and find work at short notice, I find myself worried about my financial security, my bills, my mortgage and how to get another job after eleven years of service and where that will be and when. I find myself having to consult with my union over what appeal or action we can now take against this company for their despicable, dishonourable actions.

Fortunately my family, my friends, fellow bloggers, fellow reviewers and writers have been offering me sympathy, advice and support. Times like this, they say, are where you find out who your friends are. Well, I have found out I have a lot of immensely good friends and they have lifted my spirits remarkably. I’m not alone.

And other bloggers and readers, new to this site, you too should pay some attention here because I’m not alone and these shameful actions affect more than just me. These actions have implications for everyone who blogs and works, which, let’s face it, would be thousands of us. If my rights to the freedom of expression can be ignored in this manner then so can the rights of any worker’s. You also have to ask yourself who is listening to you? Who is reading what you write and passing judgement? Is it acceptable for companies to be monitoring what their employees do in their own time? To act as if your employment contract controls every aspect of your personal life outside of work?

The free expression of opinions and thoughts is the most primal of our democratic rights. Our entire culture is based around it. The book trade could not exist without it. The internet would not exist without it. Blogs would not exist without it. Once upon a time a man was executed for translating the Bible into English – considered a dreadful heresy and, more importantly, a threat to the power and control of the authorities of the time. Eras change, but the notion of powerful groups trying to subvert the ability of others to communicate remains constant. That’s why we have laws and rights.

Freedom of speech, freedom of expression. These are not idle words. They are not some dusty old phrases liberals like to mention from time to time. They are as vital to our free, democratic way of life as water and air.

The word is already spreading beyond my family and friends. A lot of people are thinking about this and asking themselves if this is a company they want to deal with. That is not for me to say; it is for them to decide – but you should certainly be made aware of their actions when deciding.

Other friends and bloggers have already spoken out on this and I wish to thank them very, very much for their kind words and generous support. Friends closer to home have dragged me out for food and drink and movies to cheer me up. There’s nothing in this life like knowing you have people who care for you and will always help you. It’s humbling, it’s inspiring – it sustains you when all else seems dark and I thank you all so very much.

There are more than I can properly thank here, but here are some of their writings on the subject already expressed: Ariel; Matthew; Lili; Nil Desperandum. Many more have emailed me. I really can’t express my gratitude enough to you.