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Privacy Doesn’t Exist, But Snooping is Still Bad

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Here’s a great way to get a debate going among parents. Ask “should you read your child’s diary?” And now that you’re thinking about secrets, how does privacy operate at work?

First things first: we throw a lot of words around in these conversations, but they all mean different things. To put it them in plain English:

  • Privacy is the idea that you have the right to keep some things to yourself. Think of it as the opposite of being “public.” If it’s private, it’s a secret and not everyone knows about it.
  • Security is various mechanisms used to control access to information or resources so that only specific people are allowed in under specific circumstances.
  • Confidentiality is the agreement to keep something private. That’s why you have to ask for someone’s confidence before you confide in them.
  • Identity is being the person you say you are. A face is a good indicator of identity, because only you have it. But a key or a password isn’t, because anyone can give them to someone else.

This is a lot to keep track of, and the concepts don’t always overlap. For example, just because something is secured doesn’t mean it’s private. You know the bank has money in it, so there’s not a lot of secrecy there! But banks are very secure places.

Likewise, if your child keeps their journal under the bed, it may be a private document but it’s not exactly secure.

Which brings us this question which every teenager has contemplated: does privacy really exist?


© Flickr user West Midlands Police.

The short answer is that no, there is basically no such thing as privacy. Once you let an idea out of your head and put it on paper or say it out loud, other people can get to it. They may need to use the courts or a crowbar, or pay off your best friend, but your secrets aren’t completely safe. Sorry.

At work, the situation is even more intriguing. A common question is “Is it legal or illegal to monitor your employees email and Internet surfing activities?”

A fair answer to that question might come in three parts:

  1. Yes, it’s usually legal to monitor employee activity.
  2. Yes, you can use that information to make some decisions, but not anything you want
  3. Yes, constant employee monitoring is probably wrecking morale and productivity.

You have no privacy at work. And yet, reminding employees of this all the time is a bad idea. Instead, it’s helpful to provide guidelines that show you understand. For example:

  • Do tell employees that all employer-provided resources may be used for personal use on a reasonable basis. That means you can make a few photocopies for your kid’s sport team, you can call your spouse from your desk phone, and you can send personal emails. However, this resource belongs to the employer, not the employee, and abuse of the resource can be grounds for disciplinary action or termination.
  • Don’t forget to mention the (seemingly obvious) inappropriate uses of office resources. You don’t have to do this in person as long as it’s in the employee handbook—that each person receives and signs that they read and understood.

Workplace privacy expectations stem from workplace culture. Companies that monitor employee behavior are doing so because they expect employees to behave inappropriately and need to reduce their liability. Companies that do not monitor employee behavior may feel the same way, but they don’t allocate enough resource for monitoring. Companies that treat employees like adults often don’t monitor their usage, but it’s hard to tell that without a clear, open, and positive workplace culture.

In these modern times, it’s hard to decide what to do. Failure to monitor employee behavior creates a potential legal liability. But the decision to monitor behavior creates a sense of paternalism that will stifle productivity.

It’s not an easy choice. But it’s one every firm must make, eyes open, as soon as they can.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


Troublemaker and productivity/workflow expert. Slightly more complex than 140 characters will permit.
@LaceyEverett @thenerdherd @naptownbri @indystar Well, when the original source doesn’t answer the questions, people start to speculate. - 4 weeks ago
Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter

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