Every Keystroke Counts: Privacy at Work in Today’s E-World

11.04.2010
HR & Safety

You probably know what your employer expects of you when it comes to job performance–from a task at hand to a regular quota to fill or a certain set of annual goals to complete. But what about when it comes to your communications at work: to other employees or to the world outside? What’s private and what’s not in this increasingly electronic world?

Chances are, you’re not sure. Or your understanding may be fuzzy at best. But if you’re like most people, Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging and email are second nature to you noweven while you’re on the job. Is all of that private, or what can employers do to monitor it?

“Most [employees] operate under the assumption ‘This is now my private communication. The employer has no right of access to it,'” said William Madsen, partner, Madsen, Prestley & Parenteau and a speaker at CBIA’s recent Midyear HR Update.

“The position I take with my clients is,” says Madsen, “Every keystroke that you put is fair game for the employer.”

Still, Madsen stressed that Connecticut employees are well protected. “Connecticut happens to have probably the most privacy rights under state law as any state in the country,” he explained. “We were also the first state to have an electronic monitoring statute. But unlike other areas of employment law, there are some very liberal rights given to employees in the workplace.”

Right to Privacy

But just what legal issue is making the most noise in the workplace right now?

“A big one in this area is intrusion of seclusion,” said A. Robert Fischer, partner, Jackson Lewis. “The right to be left alone. What expectation do people have at work that they’re going to be left alone by their employers?”

As with most workplace issues, that expectation can be managed with clear communication between employers and employees. And now it’s the law.

“If employers are going to monitor electronic communications or activities of their employees, they have to post a notice, “Fischer said. “Connecticut was the first state in the country to adopt a statute like this.”

But it’s a message that needs to be discussed and reinforced in order to make those expectations reasonable. Fischer illustrated the point with both common and extreme examples.

“My suggestion is that you not only have a poster and a policy, but you talk about it occasionally,” he said. “And you do it and you exercise your rights occasionally. If you want to look at Internet stuff, you ought to do it. If you want to search cars, you ought to do it. If you want to search lockers and desks, you ought to do it. Having these rights that you reserve that you never exercise, leaves most employees, I think, with a reasonable expectation that you’re not going to.”

For Kathleen Bellemore, HR director at Connecticut Spring and Stamping in Farmington, it’s about creating clear, accurate electronic communications. Thanks to insight from our experts, she’s now set to develop a course to help managers and supervisors communicate with HR: and say exactly what they mean: while remaining sensitive to the limitations of the medium. Too often, a hastily crafted email with poorly chosen words can be misinterpreted by anyone, at any time.

“A lot of times they come into my office and they’ll vent,” Bellemore said of her employees. “I’ll say ‘Do you really mean that?’ and they’ll say, ‘No, that’s not what I meant.’ And then they’ll explain more. Where when it’s an email, it’s there.”

But that’s not to say that employees shouldn’t think about every move they make when they sit down at their desk. It’s up to them to make wise, logical decisions about how they spend their time at work–even when working in personal email accounts or other areas of the web usually thought of as private outlets.

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