HR Magazine, April 2005 - Future Focus


By By Jennifer Schramm Apr 1, 2005

HR Magazine, April 2005

Vol. 50, No. 4

Privacy at Work

Privacy is a topic that comes up frequently in discussions of HR trends, especially trends in technology. Concerns range from HR’s need to protect its data to questions related to the monitoring of employees’ electronic communications.

The issues are complicated because although electronic communication is global, the legislation affecting it is not. Laws and proposals on employee privacy and use of technology vary from country to country—and even from state to state—and initiatives are widespread. China is said to be considering comprehensive data-protection legislation like that of the European Union. Legislators in California and other states have introduced bills on reasonable security for personal information and on sharing customers’ personal information with third parties.

Future employee privacy legislation in the United States is likely to hinge upon opinions about current levels of surveillance. Some of those opinions are expressed in the results of research by the Society for Human Resource Management and on attitudes about employers’ rights to track employee behavior. It is no surprise that HR professionals are more likely than employees to agree with the notion that employers have the right to monitor employee activities on the job.

But employees and HR appear to be closer than may have been expected in several areas, including whether organizations have the right to audit employees’ expense reports (yes) or read em-ployees’ postal mail (no). In those areas, at least, there may be little public pressure for new privacy legislation or changes to existing laws.

On several other issues, however, employees and HR professionals are further apart. For example, 62 percent of HR professionals but only 32 percent of employees believe that organizations have the right to monitor employees’ computer usage. Broad disagreement exists also on whether organizations have the right to monitor employees’ instant messaging and Internet use.

Issues of employer monitoring of employees will remain, but the emphasis in workplace privacy will continue to be centered on employees’ expectations that their private data in employers’ hands will be protected.

Moreover, those expectations may increase with the growth of threats such as “phishing,” or the use of hoax e-mails to elicit personal data for identity theft.

Because HR professionals are typically the gatekeepers of employees’ personal data, many may need to be prepared for similar scams. HR should work with information technology departments on protecting employee data and on communicating new risks to employees and job applicants as they emerge.

Although existing legislation aimed at protecting employees from employer monitoring may not shift dramatically, there will be ongoing attempts to balance employees’ right to privacy against new threats to their security and the privacy of their personal data.

Jennifer Schramm is manager of the Workplace Trends and Forecasting program at SHRM.

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