As reported in The Independent newspaper on 13th January 2013, “The European Court of Human Rights made (a) ruling on a case involving a Romanian engineer who was fired after using Yahoo Messenger not only to communicate with professional contacts, but also to send messages to his fiancée and brother.” Simply put, “Companies now have the right to monitor their workers’ online private messages”. It is a blank cheque for internal corporate snooping, as the court, based in Strasbourg, sided with the employer in the case.
As an issue about human rights and the right to privacy, this is a huge development. But the consequences for business and industry may be more far reaching than just the clear caution that will be added to already existing mistrust between worker and employer, between boss and employee.
As most progressive firms have opted for a BYOD (Bring your own device) policy in regard to digital gadgets, the notion of snooping on corporate “apps” sitting on those devices creates all kinds of potential future trouble for business lawyers. If I own the personal hardware but agree to using it at work (if only for personal convenience as well as cost effectiveness, am I really willing to let my boss snoop on my own device? (Read more here for tips on how to tell if your boss is spying on you).
Add to this development remote and home working and where is the clear line between personal and work when using social media? And what does privacy mean in say, a freelancer, or a part-time employee, or a creative innovator who, like an artist, often has to blur the boundary between personal and professional practice. When does a walk with my family in the park stop also being a chance to do some thinking about work tomorrow and that important upcoming meeting?
Hierarchies have been breaking down for years and the rise of new approaches to organisation such as holacracy, snooping on employees and default downwards mistrust, seem archaic and, at best, clunky ways to manage behaviour.
What do we gain by claiming the right to read our employees’ private messages? We can check if they are breaking rules, we can call them on their unprofessionalism. We can “out them” when they use the com;any email to message their kids or partner. But wouldn’t it be better for those common sense behaviours to be bought into freely by staff? Shouldn’t it form part of effective induction? If our personal phones are for personal stuff and our work phones for work only content, shouldn’t we get buy-in for that, winning the arguments about security and the dangers of blurring personal-work boundaries in ways that create commercial risk? The problem with big brother is that it creates little bothers and then we have minimal compliance, and the rise of the “underweb” where smart staff find ever cleverer (and riskier) ways to elude capture.
Years ago the brilliant writer and thinker on organisational life, Henry Mintzberg, suggested better alternatives to controlling and coordinating work. Direct supervision and “policing” is often expensive and generates fear and mistrust. If we can coordinate through collaboration and shared values, freely committed to, behaviour arises through volunteering, not through dictatorship. And, often people go the extras mile when they feel shared ownership of the core values of the enterprise.
Managers and bosses now have the right to snoop digitally on their staff. They might just find that the transparency they think they have won leads to a deeper transparency flying out of the office windows as people zip up, minimise and, more dangerously, take the conversations underground. We then end up with a kind of toxic silence.
We need to all be conscious of when our personal life should remain personal and is better not mixed with our work. That’s a skill we can learn – the skill of discernment. Snooping simply covers over the problem and kills the innovation and creativity that goes with people feeling safe to blunder, to learn and to experiment. Organisations are made of people, and people are, essentially personal. Inject fear into the personal and you de-personalise the culture. Do that too much and the business loses its only real asset – the people who deliver its value.