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Would you spy on your employees?

Laura Johnson

This week's Office Life blog asks the question, would you spy on your employees?

Think twice before you send a saucy email to the colleague you're flirting with in finance. Hit delete before you use your work mobile to WhatsApp your other half with a rant about your boss poor hygiene. And don't even think about sending that new job application to a rival firm during working hours. In fact, don't write anything, send anything, view anything or even contemplate searching for anything on a work device that you wouldnt be happy for your boss to stumble across. Big Brother could be entering the workplace.

OK, this is a slight exaggeration but a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights suggests grey areas around privacy in the workplace could be emerging.

On 14th January, the press bombarded us with scary headlines declaring the confidentiality of our personal communications at work was in jeopardy. Boss can snoop on your private emails, blasted The Sun on its front page. Bosses free to spy on emails, the Daily Mail pronounced as its lead story on the same day. In fact, most of the UK press on this unremarkable Thursday in January, led with an alarming story suggesting our employers are probably using Big Brother-esque tactics to monitor our private conversations without our permission. It made uncomfortable reading for office workers across the country.

The media flurry was provoked by a decision by the European Court of Human Rights to side with an employer who extracted details from an employees personal online exchanges without his permission and shared them as evidence in a disciplinary situation. Bogden Barbulescu, a Romanian worker, was sacked for sending private messages to his fiancé using a company Yahoo Messenger account set up for communicating with clients. Private use of the account, his employer claims, was explicitly forbidden. Barbulescu vehemently denied any wrongdoing and went to the extreme lengths of appealing to the Court of Human Rights for their support as part of his extravagant plea of innocence. Unfortunately for the misguided software engineer, his right to privacy did not stretch as far as he hoped and to support their case, his employer printed and circulated 46 pages of his private Yahoo chats, including within them what the court describes as details of his sexual health.

Although the ethics of his employers actions are dubious (this level of humiliation was clearly a violation of his confidentiality by normal moral standards), the majority of the court sided with the company, agreeing they could not have reasonably clarified whether he was using the account for personal purposes without prying into the private online exchanges. Its a decision that challenges the presumed legal and social limitations on privacy in the workplace.

When it comes to the covert exchange of personal messages during working hours, few of us are entirely innocent. A Facebook message to say your meeting has overrun and youre going to be late meeting a friend for drinks or a few playful SMS exchanges with a loved one on a particularly slow Monday morning. We all do it. But we don't expect to get caught.

Theres an unwritten assumption that were all granted the right to reasonable privacy at work. We write emails largely with the expectation that they are for the eyes of the recipients only and assume our employer trusts us sufficiently not to spy on our every action. How would you feel about someone peeking in on your private communications? And how would you feel about being the one doing the snooping? Privacy is not just a human right but also a sign of respect for the integrity of the people you employ. And although the availability of surveillance technology is testing our faith in trust, most of us are not ready to actually use this capability to cross this line.

In any case, as it turns out, the state of emergency insinuated by the early tabloid headlines following the Barbulescu ruling was greatly exaggerated, with the Council of Europe issuing a statement accusing the UK press of whipping up a misinformed media storm. But regardless of the reporting inaccuracies and the trivial impact the case will probably actually have on us in the UK, the controversy the ruling raised has challenged us to consider the importance of not just privacy but also trust in the workplace. How highly do we value these qualities? And how far will we go to protect them?


  • Mark James

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