Commentary: Employees want privacy, too

Companies and their employees may differ over privacy concerns, this difference could become a public relations nightmare for firms.

3 min read
By Richard De Lotto, Gartner Analyst

Companies and their employees may differ radically over how much personal privacy a worker should have.

Gartner believes that this difference will evolve into problems with retention and recruiting--and could become a public relations nightmare for companies.

Companies should guard against "privacy outages," in which the trusted relationship between a business and its stakeholders breaks down. Privacy outages occur when employees, customers or regulators believe or suspect that a company is abusing the trust that they have come to expect and require from their employer. Such problems generally arise when the company does not follow its stated privacy policy or has multiple, conflicting policies.

See news story:
Web-based email services offer employees little privacy
At the same time companies train their employees to respect consumer privacy, they are increasingly monitoring the activities of employees themselves--on and off the job, as well as employee client contacts, telephone conversations, email transactions and Internet surfing habits. Certain regulations, productivity concerns and reducing the possibility of prosecution drive this concern.

For example, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission requires that many financial service providers monitor all contact with customers, so telephone conversations are often recorded.

These following three common business practices could cause staff unrest:

 Technology monitoring. Companies increasingly monitor compliance with telecommunications, intranet and Internet usage policies. Often, practices widely accepted among workers with regard to company-owned computers and telephones may diverge from what the individual company finds acceptable. This gap will increasingly concern telecommuters and employees who are provided with remote Web links that encourage personal growth or permit work outside of traditional business hours.

 Physical surveillance. Recent changes in technology make it feasible to monitor the location of outside staff by tracking their cellular telephones and cell modems, and determining whether the devices are in use. Companies can also track the location of particular employees through smart ID cards.

 Sensitive information leaks. Workers are greatly concerned about the public exposure of sensitive medical records or other private information. A 1999 national survey for the California HealthCare Foundation found that 60 percent of respondents had some concern that medical claims information filed through the healthcare plans joined at work might be used by employers to limit job opportunities.

The failure of companies to respect the personal privacy of employees may have long-term destructive effects, especially in a time of low unemployment among skilled personnel. People have come to expect a right to privacy (albeit poorly defined) as a consumer, and this message has been repeated by the media, government regulators and companies at large. Consequently, companies cannot assume that people will voluntarily limit their concern for privacy when they are acting as employees, instead of consumers.

Companies should pay keen attention to the long-term effect of workplace monitoring policies on staff morale, recruitment and retention. Successful companies will make sure that such policies are uniformly enforced and fully understood by their customers, employees and management. They will also clearly define the differences between acceptable personal use of corporate resources and unacceptable abuse.

(For related commentary on corporate policy for email and Internet monitoring, see TechRepublic.com -- free registration required.)

Entire contents, Copyright © 2000 Gartner Group, Inc. All rights reserved. The information contained herein represents Gartner's initial commentary and analysis and has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Positions taken are subject to change as more information becomes available and further analysis is undertaken. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof.