68

In a bit a predicament. I recently have received media requests about some upcoming research I plan to publish. According to my company's employee handbook, I have to keep them in the loop with all external press - regardless of whether or not the research was conducted for the company or outside of the company hours. In this case, my research was completed before I joined the company, but the policy still applies.

Starting with their reasonable requests, I call them reasonable not because I agree with them, but because they are documented in my employee handbook.

  1. They want to be on call on the press briefing.
  2. They want to be looped in all communication with the press.
  3. They want to act as the "gatekeepers" during the discussions with the press.

This was acceptable, because I agreed to the employee handbook and this was outlined. Then out of the blue, they pulled some "policies" that every employee is expected to follow, except it's documented nowhere and in no agreement.

  1. They want to record the call with the press.
  2. They are forcing me to take a press preparatory course (although I have dealt with the press before).
  3. They want to review my research (This is what really set me off). Other employees are not necessarily required to do this.

When I questioned where these policies were documented, I was met with a friendly "if you do not comply with policy, you may be terminated" email from the head of PR. Unfortunately I have obligations that don't allow me to leave my job at this time, but I feel like this is an abhorrent example of ethics gone wrong.

I'm an at-will employee meaning they can fire me for anything or no reason at all. I contacted HR about their absurd requests and they weren't able to give me any reasonable options forward. I don't know what to do, but I feel like there must be something I can do. I don't want to get fired, but my company sure as hell doesn't have a right to my intellectual property (partially covered by state law - Minnesota).

What should I do?

  • 62
    Based on your past questions, you are 17 years old, correct? And how are you publishing your research - in a peer-reviewed journal? That's very impressive! I would imagine that your age is a large factor in why the company doubts your abilities and wants to oversee your publication. Most 17-year-olds do not have the knowledge and maturity to handle publishing and talking to the press. – David K Jul 23 at 12:23
  • 41
    I don't see anywhere that you are giving up any intellectual property rights. Review is not the same as 'take'. – Jon Custer Jul 23 at 13:54
  • 7
    You mentioned in a comment that you've only been with the company for two months. Might make sense to add that to the question. – Ruther Rendommeleigh Jul 23 at 15:03
  • 32
    I'm baffled by this question. Why is it objectionable for the company to want to review your research? – Ben Crowell Jul 23 at 16:28
  • 10
    What does “review” mean here? Do they want to veto publication, or just see it so they can get their press response ready should what you say prove to be objectionable? – rhialto Jul 23 at 21:40

15 Answers 15

140

Let's flip this one around for a bit. Imagine the situation:

  • You're the PR department for a well-known global firm
  • A new hire comes along and wants to publish some research done prior to joining
  • The new hire won't let you see the contents of that research

The upside here is pretty small: it might turn out that the research is ground-breaking and the employer gets some benefit. Honestly, pretty unlikely though.

The downside is huge though: the employer doesn't actually know you yet. What happens if your research, intentionally or otherwise, says something like "all Afro-caribbeans are stupid"?1. That's a publicity disaster for your new employer. The subtleties of "it was done before they joined us" aren't going to be picked up by the press. Of course they're going to want to review something which is going out with their name on it - even tenured professors have some limits on what they can publish.

In one of your comments, you state:

it has nothing to do with them other then the author being their employee.

However, this is entirely what it's about. Stuff published by employees reflects on the company. It's the PR team's job to make sure that the stuff published by employees reflects well on the company, and you're trying to stop them doing that.

1. For avoidance of doubt, I certainly don't believe that statement and I don't think the poster does either. It's an example of something patently false but which would still be massively damaging to a company.

  • 14
    employer gets some benefit. if the research was done before he joined, then the company has zero claim to benefit from the research. – Juha Untinen Jul 23 at 8:30
  • 99
    Being associated with clever people is a benefit. It says "this is a place where clever people come to work". That encourages other clever people to join. Sure, they don't have a direct claim on the research, but they have indirect benefits - and PR is almost entirely about indirect benefits. – Philip Kendall Jul 23 at 10:51
  • 16
    I manage research groups at a national lab. When a new post-doc comes on board, they usually have research still to be published from their PhD. Well, when they submit a paper, guess what - it goes through our internal review process. They work here now, they follow our rules. Same for any paper in collaboration with outside groups - it gets put through our process. Sure, it is really pretty much pro-forma since the work was done elsewhere, but it will go through the process. – Jon Custer Jul 23 at 13:53
  • 29
    @JMac The employer isn't literally putting their name on the paper, but if the research is in any way controversial the first thing the media will do is write a headline along the lines of: "Big Company Employee Rob Gates Says <Something Controversial>," context be damned. As the employer, they're going to be associated with whatever their employees publish. – pip install frisbee Jul 23 at 14:32
  • 13
    @pip install frisbee - "Why not just leave?" - One could reasonably assume that OP had other job offers that they turned down. In addition, "fired/left after two months" doesn't look good on most CVs, and suddenly being unemployed so soon after starting the job might leave them in a bad financial situation as well. So, leaving after 2 months is quite different from not signing up with that company in the first place. – Ruther Rendommeleigh Jul 23 at 14:54
45

First and foremost there is nothing in your question that even hints that your employer is asking or forcing you to give up your rights. But if you truly feel that they are, you should seek advice from an attorney specializing in intellectual property (IP) and perhaps an employment attorney as well. StackExchange is NOT the place for legal advice, only a licensed professional can provide that.

The above aside, the requirements that you outline in your question seem to me to be your employer's reasonable due diligence to protect themselves, and by extension, you. You have an experienced and professional public relations team at your disposal, why not take advantage of the free services being offered to you?

  • 6
    Agree that the question title is awfully melodramatic - both parties have the right to walk away if they can't come to a mutual agreement, and that's about it. – Nuclear Wang Jul 23 at 15:00
  • I've suggested an edit to the title which has been accepted, it's an interesting question but the title didn't accurately reflect the content. – Alan Dev Jul 23 at 19:27
  • 2
    @AlanDev I noticed the edit earlier. I agree that the title didn't reflect the content of the question. But I have little doubt that it did reflect the OP's mindset and perceptions. – Steve Jul 23 at 19:30
  • @Steve, indeed! – Alan Dev Jul 23 at 19:30
  • 6
    The employer's requests may be logical and understandable from their point of view, but that certainly doesn't make them reasonable. It is not reasonable that the scope of an employment contract should extend to activities outside of the employment hours, regardless of any benefit/cost to the employer. What next? Employers wanting to record my conversations at home to make sure I am only saying good things about them to my friends? The press coverage is about the employee, not about the employer. If it were the latter then I would agree that it is also reasonable. – Jon Bentley Jul 24 at 0:39
40

You are asking in a public forum with an identity that's linked to a public twitter account about how to do PR. That suggests that you are a person who doesn't practice the level of discretion that the average corporation would expect of an employee that deals with the press.

Just because you have dealt with press before doesn't mean that you won't get a hostile journalist this time who's agenda includes disparaging you and/or your employer.

Recording a call is a means to defend against a journalist afterwards quoting you incorrectly. It's a prudent move when making interviews with potentially hostile journalists.

Your company likely has an interested that both their name and yours appear in a good light. That's compatible with your interests. Let them help you with it and let them teach you how to deal even better with press.

  • 3
    Why would anyone object to recording the call? You are making a public presentation you should assume a record of some sort will be made. – ventsyv Jul 23 at 17:52
  • Good point. I once learned 1st hand that anything you say to the press can be used against you. Unless you're very careful about how you word things to avoid creating misleading soundbite opportunities for them. – HenryM Jul 25 at 20:04
  • The press will almost certainly be recording, regardless of what the employer does! – saritonin Aug 1 at 21:36
27

From your comment:

If they found anything they didn't like, they would probably force me to change it too (otherwise what's the point of reviewing)

The point of reviewing the research before you talk about it with the press is to avoid any surprises. Let's say for the sake of argument that you've invented a gravity switch that lets you effectively turn off gravity in a given area. Something like that is bound to generate a lot of media interest, and at some point somebody is going to ask about...

  • What are you working on now?
  • What are your plans for productizing the gravity switch?
  • What does this means for the airline industry?
  • Could it be turned into a weapon?
  • What would happen if the switch ends up in the wrong hands?

and eventually:

  • Where do you work?

You may have done the research in the past, but that little fact might not stop the press from associating the work with your current employer.

If you're really concerned that they'll ask you to make changes, discuss that with them. They may or may not be able to allay your fears, but either way you'll end up with more information that you have now.

  • 3
    Resisting the urge to downvote just for "productizing" ... – GreenMatt Jul 23 at 15:32
  • 8
    @GreenMatt How will the company leverage the synchronicities between the gravity switch and your current work? – Caleb Jul 23 at 15:56
  • 1
    @Caleb: Commercializing is likely the correct word there, unless you were talking purely about technical matters not including marketing or profitability, in which case simply finishing would be correct. – Ben Voigt Jul 26 at 2:50
  • @BenVoigt Or I could just use the word I used, thanks. – Caleb Jul 26 at 13:41
  • 1
    @Caleb: It's not a real word – Ben Voigt Jul 26 at 14:47
19

They want to record the call with the press.

You've already agreed to them being "on call" so it seems to me that if they wanted to record the call without your knowledge there wouldn't be anything to stop them... (if I'm understanding you correctly)

They are forcing me to take a press preparatory course (although I have dealt with the press before).

At my company new employees are required to watch sexual harassment training videos even though most new employees probably saw videos like that at their prior jobs. I don't see this as being a big deal.

They want to review my research (This is what really set me off). Other employees are not necessarily required to do this.

Seems to me that they could review it after it's published. As for them doing it beforehand, maybe you could draft an NDA for the reviewers to sign if you're really concerned about it.

If this is not asked of other employees in your situation then I'd straight up ask the head of PR why you're getting special treatment compared to the treatment of others in the company.

16

They want to review my research (This is what really set me off).

When I questioned where these policies were documented, I was met with a friendly "if you do not comply with policy, you may be terminated" email from the head of PR.

Unfortunately I have obligations that doesn't allow me to leave my job at this time

I'm an at-will employee meaning they can fire me for anything or no reason at all.

What should I do?

You basically have three options here

  • Let the company review your work and go along with their PR guidelines
  • Find a good lawyer who will help you fight for what you believe are your rights
  • Hold on to your research and avoid publishing it until you are in a position to no longer need this job

It's understandable that you are bothered by what you perceive as a new and undisclosed requirement. But it's hard to expect a company to list every detail in their handbook. Virtually all handbooks have some generalized language that talks about "the best interest of the company" or such, which attempts to cover such situations.

Seemingly, the company has concerns about their connection to whatever it is you are publishing. That is not unreasonable from their point of view. I believe that you are a fairly new intern who perhaps hasn't yet earned the company's trust to protect the company's interest on your own. They just recently IPO'd and they simply want to protect the company from any potential public repercussions. And this is particularly true in the information security realm. When you have gone through this process once, you likely won't have to repeat it, assuming the presentation goes well.

You may already know that your work won't cast any negative light on the company, but they don't know that. Granting them access to your work before publishing may well ease their mind.

If it were me, I'd go along with their guidelines. But right now, only you know what's in your work and if it will cause issues.

This is a good learning opportunity. In the future, you may need a longer and more detailed discussion with a potential employer to learn what will and what won't be required review regarding your external activities, should you decide to keep them up. Again, information security and publication of vulnerabilities can be a very sensitive topic for some companies. It would be good to know the specifics before you sign on.

5

Personally I would call off publishing anything right now. Just say "I've been looking at my research and feel that some of my opinions have changed since I started this project so im going to have to re-write some of it" or something like that.

Find yourself a new job and publish after you've left your current job.

  • 8
    You should not be publishing "opinions" if this is a research paper. Don't muddy the waters here. – Carl Witthoft Jul 23 at 14:47
  • 4
    Or "my current employer won't let me publish this research on my own terms, so I'm withholding it until I can". – Fax Jul 23 at 15:47
  • 3
    @Woodie2714 Opinions are subjective and have no place in scientific research. Good science is purely objective. If OP were to use your excuse, it would give the impression that their research is opinion-based and that would immediately disqualify it from ever being publishable. – aleppke Jul 23 at 16:59
  • 4
    Although the exact text used in the answer may not be appropriate, the idea of waiting is a good one since OP has stated that they cannot quit the job. There is a risk of someone else publishing first, and that should be weighed against the agony of submitting to the current company's scrutiny - which OP indicates is unbearable. – J. Chris Compton Jul 23 at 19:28
  • 6
    @aleppke, this may be offtopic, but it is a huge (but very common) misconception. Science is largely about interpretation of data, often incomplete. This includes generalisation, judgement, intuition - which is partly subjective. This is why there are competing theories based on the same data. There were Nobel prizes given for incorrect interpretation of very objective experimental data (e.g. Fermi 1938). The statistical threshold where we consider a relationship proven/reliable is also arbitrary and essentially subjective. – Zeus Jul 24 at 3:10
4

I'm an at-will employee meaning they can fire me for anything or no reason at all.

When I questioned where these policies were documented, I was met with a friendly "if you do not comply with policy, you may be terminated" email from the head of PR.

That is unfortunately what at-will employment means. It means you can "choose" whether or not to comply and they can then fire you if they don't like your choice. Yes, it gives the employer colossal power over the employee and is a major factor in all sorts of other American employment injustices, since it effectively negates all other rights in the employment context.

Tactically I think your options are:

  1. Comply: personally this seems not too bad, you get free media training and the press call is "public" information anyway. I agree that "review" implies "change", but what specifically are you worried about changing unless it affects your employer?
  2. Get back in the box: decide not to publish during your employment there, and wait it out. May not be viable depending on how long you expect to spend there and how sensitive it is
  3. Publish and be damned: do it anyway, see if they fire you. May have longer term career implications.
  4. Dissociate: convince them that the research is absolutely nothing to do with them and their name will never be mentioned in conjunction with yours. This very much depends on the nature of the research; from your other answers I think it might be infosec, and your current employer is in infosec as well? In which case this is very unlikely to work.
  • 3
    "I agree that "review" implies "change"" Lots of people over on Academia might disagree with you on that. Sometimes, "review" might really just mean "look it over to make sure there's nothing damning to us, or any of our IP, in it". – a CVn Jul 23 at 14:49
  • 2
    Review doesn't imply "change" at all. They might suggest changes but I doubt they'll make substantive changes in OPs research. – ventsyv Jul 23 at 17:47
3

There seems to be something important missing from the OP's description of the situation:

If this work has not yet been published, how did "the media" find out about it and become interested enough in it to "want a briefing"?

The obvious answer is that the OP, or some former colleagues, have already been briefing the press about the unpublished work in some way.

IMO your current employer is quite right to be concerned that seem to be been pushing the boundaries of your employment contract, if not actually breaking it, already.

The simplest way to comply with your current employment contract is not to give the press briefing at all. If you already agreed give the briefing before telling your employers about it, that is more evidence of pushing the envelope of your contract.

In any case, it would be easier to make a legitimate case for the briefing after the work has been published. If "the media" want to read and comment on work that is in the public domain, there is nothing that the OP or his current employer can do about that - though they can (and maybe should) avoid any direct contact with the press through briefings, etc.

Your employer is protecting the reputation of the entire business, and that likely to be far more valuable than your personal desire to become newsworthy. Make no mistake, so far as they are concerned you are expendable, and a cost effective way to deal with "loose cannons" is let them create problems for someone else rather than trying to constrain them.

You should be aware that you are in a "no win" situation here, since anything that appears in "the media" about your research will raise the suspicion that you have talked to somebody without authorization, unless you have a solid audit trail of "who said what to whom" - which is exactly what the company wants to establish by imposing their restrictions.

  • OP mentioned in a comment that they only have been with that company for two months, so chances are that prior communication about the research has happened before they joined. – Ruther Rendommeleigh Jul 23 at 15:06
2

That's pretty standard response in my opinion. They want to make sure that:

  1. You are not making any claims on the company's behalf
  2. You are not releasing any IP that was developed with company money
  3. You are not making any negative comments about the company or bad mouthing company policy / initiatives.

To do that they do need to review your research and prepared remarks. The PR class they want you to take is probably just to make sure that you know their PR rules.

For example let's say you are going to present at a conference and you are introduced as "Rob Gates from Google Advanced Research, previously researcher at MIT" - you might think it's obvious that the research you are presenting was done at MIT, but a journalist might decide that it was done at Google. Next think you know the headline reads: "Google researching UFOs".

My advice is to give them what they want and see what they come back with. If they try to censure you that's a different story but chances are they will approve your publication with only benign comments.

1

Then out of the blue, they pulled some "policies" that every employee is expected to follow, except it's documented nowhere and in no agreement.

This is something I would have a problem with. They're essentially changing your contract without your agreement.

They want to record the call with the press.

They can record anything they want within reason. It's using that recording for their own company purposes that is a problem. They have not asked for that right (or you did not state it here if they did), so guess that's best dealt with by asking for what they want to do with the recording. Internal company use would be OK. Use in relation to e.g. marketing and publicity is not OK - you could reasonably expect something in return for that.

They are forcing me to take a press preparatory course (although I have dealt with the press before).

Get this "force" mentality out of your head. They can't force you, they can ask, or apply pressure, but they cannot force.

Is there any reason to resist doing this ? A course that may (or may not) help you improve your own skills in dealing with these issues is not, in and of itself, a problem, IMO.

This is somewhat self-contradictory of them. On the one hand they want something you have bad enough to threaten to fire you if they don't get what they want, on the other hand they're planning to spend time and resources training you to handle the press (probably in some basic way and with a bias on their company, but nonetheless). So you definitely have something they want and can bargain from that position.

They want to review my research (This is what really set me off). Other employees are not necessarily required to do this.

"Review" ? As this is research completed before you joined (and it could have rights attached by e.g. your college or something like that) you can let them look at your research with the conditions that :

  • They sign an NDA (and everyone who sees it signs that NDA)
  • They accept they have no rights to use the material
  • they undertake to keep you formally informed about any research or developments they use your work in.
  • don't given them data - data is valuable (and you may need other people's permission to do that anyway).

Make sure you have cleared sharing this material with any other parties involved - e.g. a school or college.

When I questioned where these policies were documented, I was met with a friendly "if you do not comply with policy, you may be terminated" email from the head of PR.

That's not friendly, it's the nuclear option being deployed early. "Friendly" is sitting down in a meeting and explaining straight-forwardly why they want these things and where this mystery policy came from.

If it was me I'd tell them I don't like being threatened or having new contract conditions imposed on me. I'd do it in writing.

Unfortunately I have obligations that don't allow me to leave my job at this time, but I feel like this is an abhorrent example of ethics gone wrong.

No ethics were used at all, IMO.

However I'd again question your mindset here. You are locking yourself into the view that you cannot e.g. leave, get a different job. Don't think like that.

Also note that they seem too keen to get their hands on this material or maybe for PR (who knows what they want exactly ?). You have something they want and in business that makes you the one with the power (even if it's just a little power).

So talk like you know that. Ask them flat out what's in it for you. If all they can offer is continued employment "or else" then tell them you can get work elsewhere if that's their attitude.

Worse case scenario : they terminate you. Result : get another job. Heck, start looking for one (you should be anyway). They sound like lousy employers to me. Good employers don't annoy the talent and threaten it.

  • 1
    Everyone has obligations and I think this may be more in the mind than in law in this case, and I don't think the OP confirmed they were an intern. Even if they were a college going intern (dubious if the age estimate is correct) they still can't be forced into this and should be bargaining. In addition if they age estimate is correct (17 ?) the company may be hitting some difficult legal areas in relation to contracts to (technically) minors - I'm not familiar with relevant law for the locale. – StephenG Jul 23 at 15:45
  • "They can record anything they want within reason." Legally speaking, that depends on a number of factors, and most likely they are legally required to get this guy's permission - in other words, if it was actually legal for them to record without permission they wouldn't have even brought it up, they would just do it. – industry7 Jul 25 at 20:38
  • 1
    @industry7: Being legally allowed to record without permission doesn't mean they can record without his knowledge. – Ben Voigt Jul 26 at 2:59
  • @ben-voigt that is a good point. I should have said "...record without permission they wouldn't have even asked, they would just say they're doing it and do it". My point was that companies don't usually go above and beyond as a favor to their employees. If they're asking for permission, it's likely that they "have" to. – industry7 Jul 28 at 15:16
  • @industry7: "they would just say they're doing it and do it" seems to be the situation. OP describes this as something being forced on him, not something he was asked about. – Ben Voigt Jul 28 at 15:18
1

Then out of the blue, they [sent me some] "policies" that [aren't documented anywhere].

I understand how you feel.
Your problem is that most employee handbooks I have seen in the last decade or so all have a sentence like this:

This handbook is not a comprehensive list off all situations that may occur.
For your specific situation, you should ask [blah, blah, blah]

Your situation is what they intended when they wrote that.

It is meant to cover their backsides, and it does.

I am not a lawyer (IANAL) but maybe this helps:

Next time you take a job and have unpublished research, you can ask that the company detail in your offer letter that you aren't required to discuss prior research with them.
I expect you would have reasonable grounds to sue if you had done that - but, again IANAL.
I doubt your current company would have agreed to it.

For what it is worth, you can ask for anything in an offer letter (usually stuff like more vacation, stock options, have July 2 as Independence Day instead of July 4, etc.)
and expect them to abide by it if they put it in there.


My actual answer to your question is already covered in other answers - I see no need to restate it.

This 'answer' is intended as additional information for you and for future readers to be aware.
I thought it was better as an answer; comments are less durable.

-1

Act with them as they act with you.

Does your company allow you to review possible contracts with clients before they are signed? If they sign a contract with a client manufacturing land mines which kill thousands of children that would reflect badly upon you as an employee. You don't want to be known by your peers and friends as "Rob, the guy who works for the bloody warlords".

Most likely they don't allow you to. So it is only fair to not allow them to meddle into what you do outside of working/paid hours.

As for what to do to keep your job under this draconian company while publishing your job without their interference. Do what others in your situation have done before. Publish under a pseudonim. Don't do public press sessions, just private interviews. Good journalists protect their sources and won't reveal your real name.

-3

If your company makes some request, it means that most likely your country allows such predatory contrats where employer can extend his intelectual rights over what you do in your free time. This puts employers into very uncomfortable position, if they do anything in the work-related field as hobby/uni research etc.

My collegue was forced to resign from his position because he wanted to do phd studies and his company wanted him to sign a statement that everything that he does in his free time in IT field is the intelectual property of the company (which he couldn't do, because everything he does for the studies is the intelectual property of the uni).

So your choices are basically:

  1. Do only your work and resign from any research etc.
  2. Find a company that is more accomodating
  3. Go into freelancing, you loose the security of the employment, but nobody can tell you what you are allowed to do in the time you don't invoice for them
  • 2
    This has nothing to do with the OP's situation. Doing research prior to employment is totally different from doing it in parallel. – George M Jul 24 at 22:21
-4

I would not worry too much for now when you are young and will have many experiences in the near future. Keep following the directions and be aware that one point in time that will change. Be confident and do your best without worrying much about your personal conversations. At least for now because you need to grow and fighting from the beginning does not sound a wise idea. You will shine better when you have peace of mind.

protected by DJClayworth Jul 25 at 18:48

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