(This and many others are weekly papers written for my graduatecourses. I’m posting some of them here as the information may be of interest to others as well.)

Introduction

Many employees incorrectly assume they are entitled to personal privacy within a corporate environment. This assumption is an extension of their belief in personal privacy at home and in other parts of their life. But just as we exchange our privacy for convenience in our personal life so do we exchange privacy for employment in our professional lives. This paper discusses examples of censorship, anonymity, and privacy in the workplace and looks for mutual solutions for both employers and employees.

Censorship

After finishing my first week working in the risk management group at a company I was joking told, “enjoy the weekend; just don’t show up on the front page of the paper on Monday.” This exemplifies the unspoken rules and responsibilities an employee takes on as a matter of being employed by certain companies. Employees often times understand their behavior in the workplace must be more professional than that enjoyed with friends at home, but many times workplace rules extend to the individual’s personal life. Employers have a brand to uphold and do not want to be associated with certain activities or organizations that could diminish their brand. It does not look good when the CEO of Visa pays for a corporate meal using an American Express card or when a highly visible executive at Coca Cola orders a Pepsi at dinner. These are newsworthy events because of the high ranking nature of the individuals, but who would notice a lower employee committing these infraction? These activities would have gone unnoticed many years ago but today there exists an almost infinite ability for individuals to express themselves and their personalities to the entire world. This ability manifests itself in the world of blogs and podcasts. Employers are taking notice more and more of what their employees are saying publicly and censoring the communication. If blogs are posted anonymously there is no association of the words to the individual and transitively to the company, but many times it is easy to map a blog back to an individual when linked to social networks and photo galleries. Although not technically a violation of corporate policy these outside activities and writings can bring the employee into a closed door session with their boss who explains that their continued employment could be in jeopardy if they continue their public content. The employee has little option other than to comply with corporate demand or look for employment elsewhere.

Anonymity

Because employers can take action against employees for public postings many individuals choose to remain anonymous on the Internet. The extreme cases are those that want be anonymous not just from those who read their content but also from the web pages they visit and the networks they traverse. Items are sold on CraigsList with anonymous return addresses; web surfers use Tor, and onion router system, to hide their origin; and blogs and instant messages utilize “handles” instead of real names the way CB and Ham Radio operators have for years. More and more often individuals are looking for ways to remain anonymous, but they also wish to retain their ability to communicate – event in the workplace. In one instance an employee at a particular company enabled the Read Receipt and Delivery Receipt on their email only to find that every message sent was also being delivered to their manager who was monitoring their every message. In an attempt to circumvent this monitoring they switched to using instance messages with friends, but event this was not safe. Many companies are implementing devices such as Blue Coat appliances that can monitor instance message traffic even if it is not sent over a standard port. This means that even non-corporate sanctioned instant message traffic can be monitored and recorded.

It may seem strange that employers would not want their employees to post information publicly and yet still monitor their “private” conversations. More and more employers are looking to protect their intellectual property from abuse, identify disgruntled employees, and stem any growing discontent. In one organization a prominent executive was quoted as saying, “vocal discontent is a terminable offense.” This resonated with employees and caused fear among those who wished to voice concerns over management, schedules, and project load. This type of censorship and monitoring may seem good to the company because of the additional information they collect but slowly erodes the confidence employees have in their employers.

Alternative Approaches

From what one can see employees should not expect privacy in the work place but neither should employers act as McCarthyists who wish to control and shape the views and beliefs of their employees. Instead of quenching conversation employers should harness it and use a potential weakness to strengthen their relationship with employees and potentially improve their organization and ability to deliver services and goods to their customers. People will not stop communicating be it electronically or face-to-face in closed offices. Employers should recognize this and provide corporate sanctioned methods for employees to voice their opinions and get immediate feedback. If employers limit monitoring to select and necessary cases and instead use organic communication to build relationships with employees there is no need to monitor their every action. The organic relationship between employer and employee is similar to that between parent and child. Never will a parent be able to monitor or control the actions of their child but they can enable communication channels that foster mutual trust and respect. Once these channels are open there is little need for the child to hide things from their parent. If malcontent is exposed it will not grow into something that could result in attrition of one or more employees. A lower employee turnover means reduced cost in hiring and training new employees and content employees are more likely to be efficient in their work. Additionally, taking criticism from employees can result in better products and services to customers and reduced cost in employee labor.

Conclusion

Although anonymity and privacy in the workplace are not as complete as there are in the home, employees and employers alike can concede both in making a more trusted and respected environment. Employers should clearly state in policy that communications may be monitored thus being up front and honest with their employees. Once trusted they should not violate that trust by being overbearing, instead relying on organic relationships to obtain the information they need to improve employee life and customer experiences.

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