Privacy: An Increasingly Public Matter

By Greengard, Samuel | Workforce, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Privacy: An Increasingly Public Matter


Greengard, Samuel, Workforce


Unless you've spent the last couple of years trekking across the high mountains of Tibet, you know that the march toward digital data is creating its share of anxiety and controversy. Today, it's easy to duplicate, replicate and extricate data in ways that would have seemed unfathomable only a couple of decades ago. Some might say that the ability to track employee behavior and cull personal information is downright Orwellian.

It's no news flash that all this has raised the ire of a lot of people. If there's one issue that unites America-and perhaps the world-it's concern over privacy. The feeling that Big Brother is peering over our shoulders or keeping tabs on our lives can stir up a hornet's nest of emotions. And nowhere does all this play out more dramatically than in the workplacewhere rights, needs and values conflict like guests on a late-night television talk show. And, increasingly, human resources is caught directly in the crossfire.

On one hand, there's a need to maintain a safe, secure workplace, and eliminate theft, assaults, computer sabotage, and various behaviors that could result in legal and cultural problems. Today's technology-which can monitor actions via computer, camera or other means-makes that relatively easy. You put a system in place, and almost transparently it tracks what people are doing. How many keystrokes they enter per minute, how many calls they handle per hour, and whether their time online is spent peering at financial figures or bare figures.

On the other hand, HR must ensure that a workforce isn't so irked by such activity, or that it is done in such an onerous way that productivity wanes or employees opt to work elsewhere. Further complicating things, many countriesparticularly those in the European community-have imposed stringent rules about how data can be used, moved and maintained. That can make it difficult to operate a global HRMS or merely comply with rules, regulations and laws.

It's a complex situation that isn't getting any easier. Part of the problem, states Donald E Harris, president of the New York City-based consulting firm HR Privacy Solutions, is that workplace privacy doesn't fall neatly into any one functional area. "It's an HR issue, but it's also a legal issue, an IT issue, a security issue, a government-compliance issue and more. Understanding the implications of an action or policy is essential."

Privacy issues run amok.

Of course, a well-defined privacy policy is a good start. It can eliminate misunderstandings and abuse within an organization. But is it worth catching a few cyberloafers by capturing keystrokes and Web-browsing histories for all employees? Does e-mail monitoring ferret out illegal activity or is it an intrusion into the lives of average, honest workers?

"The promise of information technology, to transform business practices in the new networked global economy, can only be realized if employees trust the companies deploying it," notes Harris. In fact, he believes that companies that don't address the issue soon could find themselves in the hot seat-just as discrimination, harassment and other issues rippled through the workplace and toppled powerful companies in years past.

However, privacy issues now transcend hidden cameras and software that can stealthily track activity on a PC. Today, HR systems contain private records, including medical and insurance information. In an era when data is increasingly shared among various enterprises, the risks continue to pile up. An outside business partner who's lax about data security-and doesn't put the right protections in place-can undermine even the best corporate policy. And, unfortunately, most companies that exchange data with partners don't bother to find out what security measures partners use. Likewise, once a hospitalization record or notation about an alcohol dependency problem falls into the wrong hands-whether another prospective employer or an insurance company-it can torpedo an individual's personal and professional life.

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