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Spy Games

Employers using tech to violate worker privacy

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I often question why I work for myself and pay exorbitant self-employment taxes and insurance premiums. Fortunately, I always get a reminder just as I'm thinking that paid vacation might not be so offensive.

This time it's high-tech spying: Private employers are installing software that allows them to sort, filter and monitor their employees' e-mail, personal or not. And some bosses are doing it secretly, so they cannot even claim to be trying to "deter" wasteful e-mail. They just want to eavesdrop.

This is appalling. I have never accepted that employers own their employees during work hours; it should be about getting the job done, not working every second. I can't imagine having happy, productive, loyal employees if the boss doesn't offer basic human respect, instead of pathetically, perhaps pathologically, snooping through their e-mail.

I accept that companies need e-mail and Internet rules. Fine, tell employees to limit their personal surfing and e-mail time to breaks and their lunch hour. Sure, tell them the company does not allow them to send or receive attachments, in order to save server space and to deter viruses, perhaps even configuring their e-mail programs not to receive attachments. Groovy, tell them that looking at, sending or downloading pornographic images isn't allowed on company computers. Nor is harassment. (And government employees should know that much of their e-mail must be available for public scrutiny.)

Then it's time to trust them to follow the rules. Assume they're innocent, not guilty. You will know if and when they're not getting their work done. Wouldn't it so more powerful to talk to a lagging employee as an adult, giving her a specific period during which to fix her productivity, than to suddenly wave a list of personal e-mails before her face? "Na-na-na-na, boo boo, I caught you talking with your boyfriend." Bully for the big bad boss.

As for the fear of porn surfing, I see the point of keeping Web histories as deterrence. But I still think examination should only happen in response to specific problems. Earl the IT guy could also slip a Hustler into a bathroom stall with him, but are employers going to install cameras there to make sure he doesn't? Lord, I hope not. But if Earl is gone for inordinate amounts of time, maybe it's time to confront him and give him a chance to improve. There is a difference.

Technology seems to give some people an excuse to do something they wouldn't otherwise. We have the tools, so we must use them. But that's a dangerous tendency, and it opens the door to all sorts of bad possibilities (and doesn't exactly help retain good employees in these times of low unemployment). You can't legally listen to an employee's phone conversations without telling him; you shouldn't do it with e-mail.

At a dinner recently with a book editor, she and I discussed this increasing tendency for companies to spy on their workers. She made an excellent point: It'd be difficult not to find a problem in employee e-mail, whether e-mails with loved ones or personal jokes. What if a boss secretly wants to fire a worker who won't sleep with him? Or because the boss is racist? Or for some other less-than-kosher reason? He sifts through her e-mail for a smoking gun.

I also don't buy that employers need to watch employee e-mail to make sure they're not harassing via e-mail. Post rules against it, and deal with it if a problem comes up. That is the time to go back and investigate past e-mails that are saved to a server, and the person who complained will probably have copies of those e-mails. There's a difference in investigating a crime, and assuming everyone is guilty.

If you think your company is monitoring your e-mail, set up a free Web-based account like Yahoo! and give that address to your friends and family. Don't save your passwords to automatically "fill." (I knew an editor who snooped this way.) And find a new job that offers you basic human respect.

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