Firms that snoop on employees cannot be trusted

Privacy seems to mean very little to us these days. We are a society that considers listening in on other people’s most intimate secrets and painful experiences to be the height of entertainment. We feed with a voyeuristic frenzy on Big Brother, Jenny Jones and Jerry Springer, shows on which people attack each other with their secrets.

It’s little wonder then that so many companies have started to monitor employee e-mail and Internet access with almost no outcry or protest on the part of the employees. According to Giga Information Group, a third of companies worldwide monitor employee e-mail messages, and that number is growing.

Companies argue that these measures are designed to prevent employees from sending out e-mail with sexual or racial content, to free up bandwidth and to make sure employees aren’t slacking off surfing the ‘net when they should be working. But no excuse can justify violating someone’s privacy.

It’s true, some employees may use the Web to view an inappropriate site, but it’s also true that some people might make racially charged comments over the phone, keep dirty magazines in their desks or make inappropriate comments while standing by the company water cooler. Companies would never think of eavesdropping on phone conversations, periodically rifling through their employees’ desks or placing a microphone at the water cooler.

In the physical world, everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but in the virtual world we are all treated as if guilty. This is unfair to those who are innocent.

If employees are whiling away their time surfing the ‘net instead of doing their jobs, this will show up in their performance. It’s unnecessary to watch over everybody as if they were misbehaving children. In fact, it may even be detrimental. Employees are much more likely to work hard and remain loyal if they are treated with respect.

But if moral arguments mean nothing to companies bent on keeping a watchful eye over their flock, then there’s an economic one they should consider.

Concerns about privacy have kept many would-be cyber shoppers from taking the plunge and making that first Web purchase. Dot-com companies and Web spinoffs of brick and mortar organizations need to reassure consumers that they can be trusted with private information.

Companies that can’t even trust or respect their employees, who can’t take it on faith they will put in a full day’s work and not squander resources, may have a harder time proving they themselves are trustworthy. If an employer believes those they have hired might make racist or sexist comments, why should Web surfers trust those employees with personal information about themselves? If a dot-com must play the part of Big Brother to make sure employees don’t trade in company secrets, why should anyone believe the privacy statement published on the Web site? If a vendor doesn’t even have the decency to treat its employees with the respect that most human beings deserve, why should customers believe the information they are asked to hand over isn’t up for sale to the highest bidder?

It’s true that most consumers are willing to sign over personal information for the price of a free pen, but it’s also true that many dot-coms are in trouble and that B2C e-commerce hasn’t yet lived up to expectations. Maybe there is something to this privacy concern after all.