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Employee privacy – buck the trend (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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It’s time to vote. It’s a tough choice this year. No, I’m not going to endorse either George “Fratboy” Bush or Al “Cyborg” Gore. This being an IT publication, that wouldn’t be appropriate. Personally, I’m using my Aunt Lila’s logic. Years ago she explained why she was voting for Walter Mondale against Ronald Reagan. “I can’t stand the thought of voting for somebody stupider than me.”

At least we weren’t treated to a dueling dirt campaign. Much to my astonishment, the Gore campaign didn’t try to uncover the specifics of Bush’s youthful indiscretions, nor did the Bush campaign ever accuse Gore of getting high on WD-40 while lubricating his bearings.

Miracle of miracles, everyone seems to have respected both candidates’ privacy.

If only we could extend that respect to the rest of us.

For consumers, the privacy battleground is greasy corporate behavior vs. the BIG/GAS theory (“Business Is Great/Government and Academics are Stupid”). The heavily promoted and highly popular BIG/GAS theory says government regulation is always a bad thing and industry can regulate itself (despite more than a century of evidence to the contrary). Greasy corporate behavior includes stalking technology that surreptitiously follows you around the World Wide Web, privacy “policies” like Amazon.com’s, which, as Ed Foster recently reported, collects data now to be used according to whatever privacy policy Amazon.com happens to publish in the future … and use of the BIG/GAS theory itself to promote self-regulation as a solution, despite ample evidence of business shortsightedness, stupidity … and greasiness.

For employees, the privacy battleground is more nebulous, which may be the reason employees seem to be giving up. Awhile back the Society of Financial Service polled managers and employees on the subject. According to the survey, two-thirds of all companies monitor their employees in some fashion or other, and most employees don’t seem to mind: Only two out of five employees considered even video surveillance a breach of employer ethics.

Once the automated monitoring of e-mails and web usage becomes acceptable employer behavior, we accept the principle of automated surveillance for detecting violation of all company policies and procedures.

Consider the future. Computers will have built-in cameras; we’ll have software that surreptitiously watches employees at their desks. Telephones will include software that surreptitiously records all conversations in an office. And why not? It’s the company’s computer and telephone, not the employee’s.

The source of employer indifference regarding employee privacy rights is fuzzy, but as my upcoming book, Lewis’s Laws, points out, modern business theories dehumanize the workforce, so they’re a likely culprit. The process perspective, for example, treats employees as roles in processes, seeking to move intelligence from employees to the process. Similarly, the knowledge perspective treats companies as collections of knowledge and seeks to move intelligence from employees to knowledge management systems. With employees viewed as process role-holders and replaceable bags o’skills and knowledge, is it any wonder companies see no problem monitoring their behavior, “hoteling” them in shared workspaces, and otherwise failing to acknowledge their natural need for privacy?

Why employees aren’t outraged is a mystery. Regardless, don’t mistake employee docility for evidence that surveillance is a good idea.

The untheoretical reality is that companies succeed and fail more on the quality and motivation of their workforce than on any other factor. The employee anti-privacy policies now prevalent in the American workplace communicate a lack of trust that’s surely as de-motivating as any message an employer can send.