Wednesday, August 8, 2012



Some people find it difficult to speak up and express dissatisfaction or concern in the traditional organizational setting. The Internet provides a forum of organizational members to communicate unpopular ideas through the use of counter-institutional websites. These are Internet sites that oppose or challenge the official institutional dissent: the highlighting of the infringement of organizational ethics, basic notions of fairness or common sense (Graham 1986). This study seeks to examine the ways in which organizational members engage in principled organizational dissent on counter-institutional websites. It is important that scholars look into the various functions these sites serve because they provide interesting information about the range of communicative methods performed within and outside of organizations. Although some of the research that has been conducted on counter-institutional websites proposes that they serve as flaming: “the hostile expression of strong emotions and feelings” (Lea et al. 1992, p. 89), or whistle blowing: “[the act of the] employee reporting [what the employee perceives to be] a wrongdoing” (Graham 1986, p, 6); I argue, in this study, that the
communicative functions of these sites are grounded in principled organizational dissent.


The definition of a counter-institutional website is defined by Gossett and Kilker as “oppositional [web] site [that] provide a counter point to official institutional messages” (2003, abstract), where “their participants…interact directly with one another outside the formal boundaries and oversight of the organization” (2003, p. 1).

Previous research conducted by Kilker and Gossett on a number of counter institutional websites demonstrates that these sites can be used by employees to monitor the organization. Kilker and Gossett (2003) suggest that on these counter-institutional websites “the watchers become the watched because individual organizational members are able to share
their experiences and views of the organization” (p. 9). This is important in understanding the concept of the employees surveilling the institution because there has traditionally been little support for this activity.

Members of an organization may identify that they are bothered by ethics, fairness or common sense by using principled organizational dissent: “the effort by individuals in the workplace to protest and or to change the organizational status quo because of the conscientious objection to current policy or practice” (Graham 1986, p. 2). Members may use this occasion to emphasize organizational inefficiencies that, while not precisely rule violations, are foundation of irritation. In order to enrich the quality of life within the organization, members must speak out against the organization.

Communication scholars, such as Lea et al. (1992, p. 89) who state that “flaming has come to be regarded as a characteristic of the medium”; and Mitra and Watts (2000, p. 481) who note that “it is presumed that dominant forces can mute voice”; have proposed a split between people who speak up within and outside the organization.

In this study, voice was analyzed “as a function of the linguistic” or a “discourse component” (Mitra and Watts 2002, p. 481). The notion of using voice within cyberspace “is related to the way in which specific discourses can create unique spaces and communities [on-line]” Mitra and Watts 2002, p. 486). Voice helps us understand the functions counter-institutional websites serve. The research on computer-mediated communication (CMC) serves as the backdrop in looking at what extent employees use counter-institutional websites to engage in principled organizational dissent. It is the idea of “‘uninhibited’ behavior’ [that] is associated with communicating via computer… [that] has gained a great deal of attention”
(Lea, et. al., 1992, p. 89) among communication scholars.


For this study, I analyzed one year of postings on a single counter-institutional website. The site I selected was dedicated to employees of the Best Buy Corporation ( This study focused on the Anti-Best Buy Employee Comments. My research was conducted using data from the “anti” message board that was collected over a 12-month period on the website. This amounted to eighty different posts which were defined as a message from a single website
contributor. I completed a thematic analysis of the data using a version of the constant comparative method (Lindlof 1995) in order to look for thematic patterns.

The coding process considered a number of ways in which to analyze the data, such as the Hirschman (1970) exit/voice model, the conflict phase model (Conrad and Poole 2002), and flaming (Lea et al. 1992). Finally principled organizational dissent was examined, looking at the three categories it encompasses: ethics, fairness and common sense. Graham’s (1986) principled organizational dissent model best served the interests of this study. Ethics was defined as: a complaint based upon lack of ethics within Best Buy. When a particular section of a posting was categorized as ethics, it was because the employee’s issue dealt with dissatisfaction regarding moral principles or values-good versus bad or right versus wrong. Fairness was defined as: a complaint based upon lack of fairness within Best Buy. If a certain portion of posting was marked as fairness, it was because the employee’s issue was germane to dissatisfaction regarding bias or
objectivity. Common sense was defined as a complaint based upon lack of common sense. When a specific part of a posting was noted as common sense, it was because the employee’s issue pertained to dissatisfaction regarding stupidity or unsophisticated judgment.

After multiple reading of the data, I applied the principled organizational dissent codes to the 1999 posts. Then, after a few weeks, I completed a recoding on the random months. Finally, I conferred with other members of the research team to examine and evaluate exemplars.


To illustrate the ways in which employees used the anti-Best Buy site to engage in principled organizational dissent, I will provide exemplars, verbatim from the data.

As indicated, posts that fit within the ethics category tended to focus on right and wrong. For example, the July 1999 post is from a person concerned that Best Buy is taking advantage of non-English speaking customers:“Being in Minneapolis there is a large Hmong and Latino presence. My supervisor preyed on these people because they couldn’t speak english well or did not know very much about the products. That made them easy targets for PSP’s.” This employee is concerned that this behavior, while not illegal, seems unethical and violates his/her moral principles.

The fairness aspect of principled organizational dissent deals with questions of unequal treatment or behavior. This May 1999 post illustrates an employee who feels that the compensation system is unfair: “I do not wish to leave, but it seems that throughout my career I have been faced with unfair salary compensation when compared to my peers.” Once again, the company is not accused of any rule violations. However, the employee feels that he/she is not treated appropriately because standards for “fair” compensation are not being met by Best Buy. This is not a question of ethics, as the poster
does not felt lied to, but a matter of unequal treatment.

Common Sense:
The common sense standard deals with issues of decent versus indecent judgment. A September 1999 posting questioned the way that the week schedule was put together: “Also, ever since I have been a team member we had scheduling problems. The Weekly Source located in the Dot.Com book states that the schedule is to be posted on Wednesday. That has maybe happened twice. Do you realize how hard it is to make plan when you receive a schedule for the next week on Saturday? Or are we just not expected to have a life outside of Best Buy?” As you can see, this person is pointing out that there is a better way to do the weekly schedule. This person is questioning the judgment and planning
of management common sense.


I suggest that the information found on counter-institutional websites can be useful and interesting to communication and organizational scholars. The examples I provided are ones that these scholars should care about, because they offer new insight on way in which CMC is significant with respect to principled organizational dissent. The majority of the issues on
these websites are ones that are difficult to discuss in the traditional conflict management system, such as avoidance, accommodation, compromise, competition, and collaboration (Conrad and Poole 2002, p. 321). Therefore, these sites should be seen as places where particular types of dissent and conflict, that may be made invisible in the traditional organizational environment, are made visible.

With no space to voice these complicated concerns within the institution, employees must use counter-institutional websites to be heard, especially when it deals with the morale of an employer. Organizations need to provide a means for issues to be dealt with among management and employees. Reverting to counter-institutional website use should not be necessary in order to voice dissatisfaction.


Conrad, C. and Poole, M. S. (2002). Strategic Organizational Communication - In a Global Economy (3rd ed). Fort Worth: Harcourt College Publishers.

Gossett, L. and Kilker, J. (2003). Examining the free speech features of counter-institutional websites and their potential for empowerment. San Diego: ICA

Graham, J. W. (1986). Principled Organizational Dissent: A Theoretical Essay. In B. M. Staw & L. L. Cummings (Eds.), Research in Organizational Behavior (Vol. 8, pp. 1-52). Greenwich, CN: JAI Press Inc.

Hirschman, A. O. (1970). Exit, voice, and loyalty: Responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kilker, J. and Gossett, L. Revisiting Bentham: Counter-panoticism in the age of the Internet. Submitted to Surveillance & Society (in press).

Lea, M., O'Shea, T., Fung, P., Spears, R. (19912). 'Flaming" in computer-mediated communication: Observations, explanations, implications. In Contexts of Computer-mediated Communication (Ed. Lea, M.) Harvester Wheatsheaf, New York, pp. 89-112.

Lindlof, T. R. (1995). Qualitative Communication Research Methods. Current Communication: An Advanced Text Series, p. 222. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc.

Mitra, A. and Watts, E. (2002). Theorizing cyberspace: The idea of voice applied to the internet discourse. New Media and Society, 4 (4), 479-498. Wake Forest University, USA, SAGE Publications.

Brandi Powell