Privacy Issues in the Workplace

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I usually write about issues that relate to the privacy of your customers. Today, I want to ask about your personal privacy. Maybe thinking about how privacy, or the lack thereof, affects life in your workplace will offer a different perspective.


During the past few years, we have heard a great deal about privacy on the Internet, and one result has been the proliferation of privacy policy notices for Web sites. That has been a generally good, if incomplete, response to a part of the privacy puzzle. Privacy in the workplace, however, is often a concern for workers in any type of organization, and the issues often are invisible.


Some companies have formal policies for employee privacy, but many do not. Let's consider some privacy-related activities in your office that may be of interest to you.


Who reads your e-mail? If you send and receive e-mail at work, your boss can read it all. Workplace e-mail has little legal protection. That may or may not be good policy. Regardless, what is the practice in your office? Is there a written office policy that states whether you have any expectation of privacy in e-mail?


Frankly, even if your company has a policy of not reading mail, the mail probably can be read and used against you. Still, you might want to know if someone is watching. If you don't know, maybe you should think twice about what you write or which listservs you subscribe to. If you receive 20 messages a day from a spina bifida support group, someone is going to figure out that you have a child with that disease. Will that diminish your employment possibilities?


How about Internet use? Does your employer monitor what you do online? It would be nice to know if anyone is watching before you surf to a porn site, to eBay or even to a plain vanilla federal government site. I can make inferences about your financial condition just from the tax form you download.


Let's turn to your personnel file. Is there a policy governing who can see the information in your file? It may not just be salary information that is sensitive. The folks in human resources already know what you are paid. So does your boss.


Personnel files can accumulate other information about your health as a result of medical insurance. Financial information abounds, from your 401(k) plan to life insurance or to the number of deductions you took for income tax purposes. Are you subject to wage garnishment? A child support order?


Life insurance raises tricky privacy issues. I have had a few questions lately from people worried about the consequences of accepting or even declining company-paid life insurance. The basic concern comes from those who have a secret somewhere in their health files. The secret could be treatment for psychiatric problems or a heart attack that no one at your current place of employment knows about. If your supervisor knew, your prospects for assignments or promotions could be affected.


When you apply for individually underwritten life insurance, you must agree to let the insurance company see your entire medical history. Read the consent form sometime, and see whether it makes you feel a bit uncomfortable. You might not be thrilled sharing your intimate medical secrets with the Medical Information Bureau and the rest of the insurance industry.


Sometimes, you can decline coverage. However, when the coverage is free, a refusal would look strange. Sometimes, coverage is mandatory because the company is the principal beneficiary through coverage for essential personnel.


Life insurance can create a dilemma. If you accept the insurance and sign that obnoxious consent form, your entire medical history may become known. If your company owns the policy, it may be able to learn more from the insurer than you would like. After all, from the perspective of the insurer, your company is the customer. If the customer wants to know why the premium on some employees is twice the standard rate, the insurer may disclose the details. Just knowing that an individual was charged a higher-than-normal price reveals something, even if you don't know the reason.


We haven't exhausted all the workplace privacy issues, but we have made a dent in some of them. If I made you even a little nervous, then I did what I set out to do. Those who buy mailing lists have privacy interests just like those who are on the lists.


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