Privacy can be described as the absence of invasion or intrusion into the personal space of an individual (Hubbartt 1998, pp.20-21). The privacy of the people at the workplace has been a controversial subject for a very long time. The two major sides of the controversy are the employers and the employees. The employees argue that they are entitled to a level of privacy whereas the employers argue that they need to keep surveillance of the workplace as a way of protecting not only the workers but also the assets (Greenspan 204, pp.23-24). All these arguments seem to make sense. The workers need their private space and the owners of the businesses in which the employees work need to know what is going on. Where does the balance lie? When is the surveillance from the employers too much for the employees? This paper will examine the wider aspect of workplace privacy. How the privacy of the employees is abused will be discussed and the various arguments raised by employers in defence of their actions will be looked into. Also, the consequences of the actions from both sides will be examined and the future of privacy at the workplace commented on.
Workplace privacy is currently favouring employers at the expense of the personal space of employees. The employers are given all the leeway that they want to look into every action that the people working for them do. Complaints from employees over their concerns regarding the reaches of this employer freedom on surveillance are not backed d up by the law. This inevitably leads to a conflict wherein the employers and their employees wrestle each other for space. What are the most common surveillance systems that employers use in the abuse of the privacy of their employees?
The most common method of intrusion into the private space of employees is the use of surveillance cameras. They are commonly called closed-circuit television cameras, and they are normally placed at strategic places where they record the actions of the workers. In most cases, this is done without their knowledge. These cameras may record the motion pictures which are then viewed later or someone may just watch as the action takes place. In some cases, the cameras may be placed at places where they are visible. This is what the law considers to be acceptable. In this case, the employee or worker does anything knowing that someone somewhere is watching what he is she is doing.
Apart from the usage of cameras, employers also intrude into the privacy of their employees by listening in on their telephone conversations. This can be done through the supply of company phones which are wired so that as the employee speaks to anyone anywhere, someone can get all that the employee is saying. Alternatively, some employers go as far as tapping the personal phones of their employees. Recording phone conversations of employees and the usage of cameras have been the most common forms of surveillance for a very long time. But is it the same in modern times?
The transformation of the business world has come with more means of limiting the private space of employees. The emergence of computers as a tool of communication meant that employers had to find ways of ensuring that most if not all information exchanged between employees and outsiders as well as among employees was intercepted and examined. This led to a new system of online surveillance. The privacy of employees while online is not guaranteed at all. In most cases, while an employee is sending an email to a friend, the manager or another senior person in the company is reading the same email. An employer can be reading all the chat messages of employees. All the websites the employees visit as well as the online activities employees do can be monitored. The limitation of the privacy of employees, while they are online, is the latest form of intrusion into the private space of employees. What is the argument projected by employers for not giving employees sufficient privacy?
As already stated elsewhere in this essay, employers give several reasons for not allowing employees to have their private space. These reasons include the protection of the physical assets of the company such as the buildings, the computers, the vehicles and other machines that can be spoilt by undisciplined employees, the protection of the finances, the maintenance of security and safety of everyone in the workplace and safeguarding company image. How does this happen?
In terms of protecting the physical assets of the company, employers always argue that nothing and no one is predictable in today’s dynamic environments. With the rise of terrorism and the inability to foretell who has the potential for violent behaviour, the best way to ensure that sudden changes in employee behaviour are noticed is through surveillance. This way, if an employee reaches a point where he or she starts to vandalize workplace assets, the company will be in a position to deal with the person before too much damage is done. The fact that most companies have assets that are highly valuable and can take a lot of resources to replace makes the management more determined to invade the privacy of their employees to try and keep these assets as safe as possible.
What about the protection of finances? This is the latest motivation for the intrusion into the online privacy of employees. The fact that company finances can be transferred very swiftly through online transactions has made employers track all the online activities of their employees. The argument behind this is that in case finances get stolen; it is possible to get all the online activities of all the employees to see the one responsible for the crime. Other forms of communication are also targeted as a way of trying to check the activities of all the employees to see what they are up to and how this can affect the finances of a company. for example, if an employee keeps on calling an outsider who later gets connected to a corruption case involving the company, it is possible to link the phone conversations and establish the dealings between the employee and the outsider as far as the corruption case is concerned. Therefore from here, employers argue, it is easier to find the people responsible and this will make the recovery of the stolen finances easier.
The third argument that is always given by employers as they defend their invasion of the privacy of their employees is the fact that they need to protect the employees themselves as well as the rest of the people in the workplace. The explanation for this is that people have different behavioural dispositions and it is not possible to predict how someone is going to behave in the next five hours unless a pattern is established. Even with this pattern, it is not a guarantee that someone’s behaviour will be predictable to the last point. In this case, the best way to ensure that people who have violent inclinations in their character do not harm anyone is by ensuring that everyone in the workplace is monitored closely. Again the fact that terrorism is a scare for nearly everyone and the possibility that any company or organization can employ someone with terrorist connections is even a bigger motivation to monitor all employees to ensure that the dangerous ones are known before they have the chance to carry out their evil plans.
An example of a classic employer explanation for intruding into the private space of employees will take the format that follows: James is a promising young man whose grades from college show that he never missed making the honour roll. He has secretly sympathized with a terrorist organization and thinks that they are fighting for a just cause. He swears in his heart that the moment he starts working and making his own money, he will support them in their mission. James is employed by Abel Enterprise, an upcoming Computer Assembly Company. Once he starts earning his salary of $ 35,000 per year, he sends the terrorist organization more than half his salary. He communicates to the terrorist organization’s head daily through email and phone calls. Later, the terrorist organization attacks the same premises where James works and destroys the entire building. Nothing is salvaged but luckily no one is hurt. What is the role of surveillance in such a case?
An employer who is out to defend the limitation of the privacy of employees will tell you that if the employer in the above case had taken pets to watch James, all the above would not have happened. The much that would have happened is employing James since with his outstanding academic performance and hidden sympathy for extremists; it would not have been easy for Abel Enterprises to know that he was not the right employee for the job. But from that point, intercepting his email and phone conversations would have alerted the management that they have hired a dangerous man; in which case they would have informed the authorities for appropriate action.
Leaving the above aside, employers use the argument of protecting company image as a reason to move into the private space of the employees (Hubbartt 1998, pp.65-66). Under this argument, the employers posit the argument that employees can engage in activities that can bring bad publicity to the organization. Therefore the best way to avoid this is to always keep an eye on the employees and ensuring that any employee involved in mischief is dealt with before it gets to a level that can hurt the company. What do employees say in return?
Employees are not happy with the reality that their privacy is not respected anymore. They give several reasons as to why this is a bad thing to do as far as employee handling is concerned. Indeed there have been instances where employees have taken their managers and other senior employees to court for not respecting their privacy. So what are these arguments given by employees against what they consider abuse of their privacy?
First, employees think that there is no reason for spying on them given that most companies carry background checks on their employees before employing them. In the background checks, employees claim that the employers should be able to know which employee is good to work for them and who is not fit to work for them. If the background checks are carried out properly and comprehensively, there would be no need for this intrusion into the private space of employees while they are working.
In addition to the above, employees argue that the knowledge that someone is watching what you are doing makes one nervous and affects performance. The issue here is that it creates nervousness that makes the employees unable to concentrate on their work. A nervous employee is not able to do his or her best and therefore not able to do anything substantial for the company. This, therefore, raises a productivity question.
Besides productivity, employees are concerned that details that should be known by either family members only or a close circle of friends get to other third parties who should; not know them even though these details are not harmful to anyone. In some cases, these details are so embarrassing when they get to the public and this means that when an employee knows that the general manager has been reading his or her mail and listening to his or her private conversations while discussing a private issue with someone, he or she feels like she or he has been stripped naked in public. This, therefore, raises a basic question of respect to employees.
Another argument that has been raised by employees is the abuse of the freedom of surveillance by some employers. It is well known that some employers have made it a habit of watching their employees do private things like change clothes or use the restrooms (Lane 2003, pp.56-57). This is a unique case of abuse that employees feel strongly about leading to their opposition to the whole idea of letting employers into their private space. Is there any other form of intrusion into employees’ privacy? Is there any other dimension to the issue of workplace privacy?
In some cases, the government has asked the management of some companies to keep track of the activities of their employees. Also in other cases, the government has been known to monitor the activities of employees who work either in government offices or in private enterprises. The argument that is given in this case is that the government needs to access information on specific individuals as a way of trying to protect the public from violence or theft. What are the consequences of this lack of respect for the privacy of employees at the workplace? This question is from the perspective of employees since the employers do not consider the whole exercise lack of respect for their employees’ privacy.
For the employees, there have been numerous court cases whereby some employees have come out to sue their employers for lack of respect for their privacy. These cases have been with different results with the employees winning in some instances and the employers winning in others. A clear law governing the handling of the element of privacy at the workplace will be the only way in which the employees and employers will be able to deal with this issue appropriately once and for all. But so long as this legislation is still missing, these cases will keep on emerging with mixed results and more confusion will reign in this issue of privacy at the workplace.
Apart from the above, employers have been able to protect their assets by being able to spot undisciplined employees in advance and dealing with them (Hubbartt 1998, pp.32-33). It is not a farfetched claim that some employees can be dangerous and cases of employees going to their places of work with intentions of causing damage are not uncommon (Hubbartt 1998, pp.19-20). In such cases, the surveillance team can deal with such an individual before he or she manages to carry out his or her plans.
Employers have also been able to deal with financial crimes in their companies through online monitoring. Due to access to the online activities of their employees, companies that have lost funds through online transactions have been able to identify deal with such cases in instances where their employees have been involved. This has been possible due to the presence and access to the online history of their employees.
One of the negative consequences of lack of privacy at the workplace is the decline in worker morale. An employee learning that someone has been listening to his or her private and intimate conversation with his or her wife is never a source of encouragement. Therefore most workers have lost the motivation to do their best at their places of work. This has an inevitable result of low productivity from the company given that the workers are not doing their best.
Also, government surveillance has been behind the interception of communication between extremists and their accomplices. These intercepted messages have been a great source of intelligence that has led to the stoppage of many possible attacks. This has had the overall effect of improved security among the people. It may not have been perfect but the fact that several possible attacks have been stopped is reason enough to make use of this source of intelligence.
In conclusion, it is evident from this paper that workplace privacy is a controversial subject. Employees are determined to have their privacy respected. Personal respect and the maintenance of high motivation levels are some of the reasons they cite. Employers on their part cite the security of their assets, the security of the people at the workplace and the prevention of financial crimes as a reason for invading into the private space of their employees. The only way to resolve this controversy is through legislation.
Lane, F., (2003). The Naked Employee: How Technology Is Compromising Workplace Privacy (Kindle Edition).New York: AMACON.
Greenspan, A., (2004). Employers’ Guide To Workplace Privacy (4th ed.).New York: Aspen Publishers.
Hubbartt, W., (1998). The New Battle Over Workplace Privacy: Safe Practices to Minimize Conflict, Confusion, and Litigation (1st ed.). New York: AMACON.