Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Critical Blogging Can Be Costly

There have been several stories about people losing their jobs because of blogging; either they have been putting up posts that are critical of their place of employment and naming names, or they have been doing it when they should have been doing their job. Here, however, seems to be a rather interesting turn on the story; someone losing a job before they start it because of their blogging.

Alesh Houdek runs a blog here in Miami called Critical Miami. It is a lively collection of stories about life and the arts here, and Alesh isn’t afraid to take on the art community. (He also does some very interesting photography.) A couple of months ago he applied for a job as a graphic arts coordinator for the new Miami Performing Arts Center; it’s still under construction (and seemingly will be forever) on the north edge of downtown Miami (and a couple of blocks from my office). I’ll let him take the story from there.

At the beginning of September, I was alerted to an opening at the Miami Performing Arts Center for a Graphic Design Coordinator. The job description seemed to match up with my qualifications pretty well, and it sounded like a dream job – I’m obviously interested in the performing arts, and this is to be the biggest, shiniest spot in a town I care very much about. Still, I figured they must be getting in thousands of applications for a job like this (graphic designers are a dime a dozen), and I figured my chances were slim, so I sent in my resume and pretty much forgot about it.

A few weeks went by, and I got a phone call: they were interested enough to want to meet with me. My first interview, in early October, was with Gail Eaton, Marketing Director, and it seemed to go pretty well: I have print as well as web design experience, a simple, clean style, and experience working for a non-profit in the performing arts, which seemed to be the exact combination they were looking for. I was called in for a couple of more interviews. In fact, I ended up meeting with seven different people from Miami Performing Art Center (some of these were group interviews), plus a representative of a design firm they employ.

To make a long story short, I was hired, and we agreed on a start date of November 14, 2005. I gave my notice at my job on October 31 – exactly two weeks (less then I would like to have given, but that’s the way it worked out – there was a hurricane in there, remember?). I got my hire letter [link to a jpeg scan], and I couldn’t wait to start – I was thrilled.

On Wednesday, November 9, I got a call from the Center. Seems there is a blog called ‘Critical Miami,’ of which they had been unaware, which has some negative, and factually inaccurate, material about Miami Performing Arts Center, and the knowledge had caught them off guard.

Now, I should point out that Critical Miami is listed on my resume [pdf link; highlight added], although it’s true that I didn’t bring it up during the interviews. Anyway, it sounded like it was a serious problem for them, so I asked if I could send an e-mail to put my posts on the blog, as well as why I hadn’t brought it up during the interviews, into perspective. I sent the e-mail the next morning. In addition to the one post they’d mentioned, I pointed out two others. Here, here, and here are the three posts the e-mail references.

The e-mail wasn’t good enough. I got a call on Thursday, asking if I could come in Friday and discuss the situation. I pointed out that that was my last day at my old job, but they were pretty insistent, so I agreed. At this point I was pretty worried. I wanted to be ready for the meeting, and I spent a lot of time thinking what I was going to say, and how I’d respond to hypothetical questions. I also prepared a selection of printouts to have ready for questions: about a dozen printouts of grateful, positive e-mails from readers of the blog (including a couple from local journalists), another copy of my resume, and site stats.

The meeting was with Gail Eaton, as well as a couple of others from the organization. I was supposed to explain how I could work for the Miami Performing Arts Center when I’d written “so negatively” about it in the past. One of the things that they kept coming back to was that the fact that I hadn’t “disclosed” the blog was the real problem; yet they also spent lots of time incredulously quoting the posts, suggesting that the content was the problem. I mostly just tried to expand on the content of my e-mail. I pointed out that someone who takes an interest in the community might be just the sort of employee they want, but it was no use. In the end, I didn’t say whatever it was they needed to hear, and I was sent on my way, in the unfortunate position of having to ask my old employer for my job back (which worked out, luckily).

It’s difficult to say whether I had any chance of affecting anything in that meeting. I’m no lawyer, but I think I laid out a reasonably good case. At some points it felt like they’d made up their minds on Wednesday, and just decided to call me in for a little rebuke; other times it seemed like particular things I said were definitely working against me, and I should have had a set of talking points and just repeated them. Who knows? (I might point out that they never did point out anything in the posts that was factually inaccurate.)

The Miami Performing Arts Center is going to be just fine without me, and I’ll be just fine without them, so all this is really no big deal. I guess it’s just a little disappointing that such an important organization is being run this way.

The construction of the MPAC has been behind schedule almost since the day they broke ground and the formal opening has been pushed back several times; it is now slated for August 2006, nearly two years after the original date. The project has also been over budget, leading some observers to wonder whether or not it would have been cheaper to build a baseball park on the spot and share it with the arts complex; at least it would generate more traffic. As for what they did to Mr. Houdek, it demonstrates a lack a finesse in their dealings with prospective employees — he did, after all, put the blog on his resume — and that they’re a tad oversensitive to the fact that they’re having a couple of problems with the project. That’s not the way to build support for the arts in a community that sorely needs all the help it can get in that area.