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The end of privacy in the digital workplace

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15 June 2012

Associate Professor Peter Holland
Associate Professor Peter Holland

By Associate Professor Peter Holland

The development of digital monitoring and surveillance has increased dramatically over the past decade and pervades all aspects of everyday life, to the extent that most people don’t even notice it. In the workplace, the expansion of digital communications can best be seen in the centrality of email in everyday work. Adding to this is the more recent phenomenon of social networking through Facebook and more professional sites such as LinkedIn.

These new areas of e-communication have become major highways of information flow both inside and outside the workplace. Whilst the benefits of an increasingly connected workforce in a more complex, diverse and dynamic global workplace are promoted, the potential negative consequences of e-communication are less noticeable. However, they are raising concerns for both employers and employees as the barriers between workplace and personal activities become increasingly blurred, and the level of monitoring and surveillance becomes more invasive.

Our recent study - The Electronic Workplace – is the first national study of employees’ attitudes to electronic monitoring and surveillance in the Australian workplace and was conducted jointly by Monash University and the University of Tasmania. It identifies several concerning, even cavalier, attitudes by employees to the use of social media, personal data and privacy.

The Use of Social Media at Work

Of those surveyed, 31 per cent reported using social networking sites during work hours. Facebook was the most used site at work (94 per cent), with only 14 per cent acknowledging using social media solely for work-related activities, compared with 42 per cent using it just for personal (non-work related) activities, a 3 to 1 ratio.

Just under half (45 per cent) used social media for both work and personal activities. This highlights the issue of blurring the workplace/private space boundaries and the work and private life boundaries. Given this, it is of concern that only 35 per cent of respondents reported the presence of a policy or statement concerning the use of social media at work. Of those, less than one third – and 12 per cent of those surveyed – indicated they had received training around the use and intent of such a policy.

Privacy at Work

An underlying theme associated with this research is the issue of employee privacy. Along with the development of technology within the digital workplace, the amount of information an employer holds on an employee continues to increase. With this in mind, we asked employees during our study about their views on the information their employer holds on them.

In terms of an employee’s rights to access this personal information, 72 per cent reported that they understood their access rights on this important issue. However, only 51 per cent understood what this personal information was used for, and only 53 per cent knew who within the organisation had access to it.

In terms of the use and disclosure of personal information by the employer, 62 per cent of respondents indicated they were not at all concerned about how their employer used this personal information; and a further 20 per cent only a “little” concerned. These results are worrying in that there appears a lack of concern about or awareness of the quantity of information employers hold, who can access it and what it is used for.

From an organisational perspective, issues associated with the development of policies around privacy at work do not appear to be understood as well as might be expected. It is surprising that only 57 per cent of organisations were reported to have a privacy policy or statement for employees. In those organisations that reported having a policy on privacy, around 6 out of 10 respondents had read the policy or statement.

These results indicate that this is likely to an area for conflict for both employers and employees, as the amount of information acquired on an employee increases and employers look to potentially sanction employees over how and for what they are using electronic media. Employees using social networking to discuss their personal and professional lives is increasingly an area for conflict.

This escalating use of online systems and information flows highlights the blur between professional and private lives. It also highlights the information these online sites hold, and to what extent the employer has the right to monitor this free flow of information. To deal with these emerging issues, organisations’ digital communication policies and practices may become increasingly invasive. We might be seeing the end to privacy as we know it.

Associate Professor Peter Holland is from the Department of Management in the Faculty of Business and Economics at Monash University.