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Privacy for All

by Douglas E. Welch

July 9, 1999

© 1999, Douglas E. Welch

Privacy has been in the news quite a bit lately. With the growth of the Internet, more and more people have been mailing, shopping and reading on the World Wide Web. Along with this activity has been a huge increase in the amount of junk mail, both paper and electronic. It didn't take long for the public to realize that their personal information was being bought and sold on the open market. This, in turn, has caused a backlash against online services and a call for the protection of this information. Unfortunately, while the industry has seen fit to protect the privacy of their customers there is little concern about the privacy of the people serving those customers.

Goose and gander

While many web sites now sport privacy agreements and other disclaimers that user's personal information will not be sold, their own employees are not granted any such protections. It is common for companies, especially larger corporations, to monitor email and web site access of all their employees. In several cases, workers have been fired or reprimanded for the use of the web or email for "personal" reasons. It seems that privacy is fine as long as it doesn't interfere with a company's ability to spy on its employees.

Honest problems/Bad solutions

I will be the first to agree that employees who are abusing email or web access should be reprimanded or fired. It seems to me, though, that heavy monitoring of these services is not required to spot these problems. Anyone who is ignoring their work to play on the web should be easy to spot through traditional means. If people aren't getting their work done, this should be obvious to their managers.
Network monitoring is being used as a replacement for good management. It is easier for managers to look at a few computer generated reports to determine if an employee is wasting time than actually interacting with that employee. Management is also looking for some quick metric for firing that will stand up in this increasingly litigious era. Abuse of network services seems to an easy way to fire employees without taking the time to acquire other performance data.

Everybody loses

You might think that network monitoring only effects those who are abusing online privileges. In reality, everyone suffers. Some companies have gone to great lengths to establish what is appropriate online access. Others have only vague guidelines. Both have the effect of chilling the use of email and web services to assist in an employee's legitimate work. If they constantly have to ask themselves if something is allowed or not, they are less inclined to use it at all. It seems ridiculous to me to lose the benefits of such a great information source due to the actions of a minority of users.

Just like policies that control personal phone calls at the office, online policies need to be firmly based in reality. Allowing workers to send and receive personal email, just like making personal phone calls, can actually help them to be more productive. Since most of us are working increasingly long hours, the ability to handle a few personal items from work can be crucial to both home and work happiness.

Trust Fund

Another major casualty of strict online policies is trust. In an era when worker loyalty and trust is at an all-time low, heavy-handed online policies only exacerbate the problem. Employees, as a whole, are trustworthy individuals who try and provide productivity commensurate with their pay. Little is more damaging to a work force than treating all with contempt because a few have proven themselves unworthy of trust. Good employees will soon realize that it matters little what they do, or how well they do it, since management has already determined they are all lazy, crooks or thieves.

While there will always be people who abuse their access to phones, online services and office supplies it is important to remember that there are many people who are honest and hardworking. Forcing these people to suffer for the sins of the others is damaging and, in time, will drive people from their jobs to a company that respects their efforts and their ability to manage their own work life without heavy-handed policies.

Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career issues with other readers by joining the Career Opportunities Discussion on Douglas' web page at: http://www.welchwrite.com/

He can reached via email at douglas@welchwrite.com