Workplace Privacy Issues begin to recede as the ‘Open Workspace’ revolution dawns.

Today’s modern work force is submitted to an unending barrage of activities that test the limits of personal privacy in exchange for the privilege of working for in an employer. Employees struggle with the limits they can reasonably expect privacy in the workplace (Privacy Information, 2011). Some of these activities include the monitoring of company control of e-mail, instant messaging services, phone call monitoring, closed-circuit video monitoring and drug testing. And since many of these activities are guided by a variety of state laws and federal statutes not every worker in every state is protected with the guarantee of due process of review in every activity. Employees have to navigate a maze of legal codes and employment law applicable to their state of residence and/or industry. The United States Constitution does not guarantee the express right to privacy, rather, privacy is determined by a mix of federal and state laws conceived by common law courts (Halburt, Igulli 2010, p.74)(Privacy Torts, 2011).

It is common knowledge is that an individual has the right to protect his basic dignity and worth as a human being and therefore need to maintain social environment that safeguards one’s individuality (Halburt, Igulli 2010, p.74). In everyone’s life there is a zone which contains closely guarded personal secrets that can be readily shared with close relations with persons of trust. In today’s electronic communications world, there is the risk that a stranger could violate persons and closely held intimate personal zone. In an ideal world, everyone should be to say exactly what they feel at any given time, but due to the fact that everyone operates at a different emotional level any given time, such spurious comments could result in damage to reputations and feelings (Halburt, Igulli 2010, p. 77) . The results have been that specific limits to information sharing have been enacted to regulate the amount and type of information that we share with one another, or with the company for whom we work.

Employees can be expected to have their company e-mails monitored at work because SOX 404 regulations require that companies archive all e-mails in case they come under scrutiny or investigated. Also, disgruntled employees may transmit damaging e-mails over company networks could cause irreparable damage to the company’s name products reputation. (Halburt, Igulli 2010, p. 71)

In a recent Supreme Court case, NASA vs. Nelson (2010) the court argued that government invasive background checks violated constitution and that these inquiries represent a “privacy interest of constitutional significance.” Justice Scalia opined that reasonable requests for information will be protected under the privacy act (EPIC: Workplace Privacy para. 1, 2).

At the state level, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled in favor of employee privacy which ruled that Marina Stengart was entitled to privacy with regard to exchanged e-mails using her Yahoo account and receiving them on a company-owned lap top. This decision protects web-based e-mail accounts from company intrusion (Epic: Workplace Privacy, 2010, para. 7).

Michael’s life vs. Pillsbury, United States district court, 1996 supp.97

Pillsbury Company maintained an e-mail communication system to promote internal communications between its employees. October 1994 printed Michael Smyth received e-mails from supervisor on his home computer (Halburt, Igulli 2010, p. 73). The plaintiff responded by exchanging e-mails with supervisor. These e-mails were not held with confidentiality and contrary to assurances made to defendant by the plaintiffs company. January 17, 1995 the plaintiff notified. He was terminated for transmitting inappropriate and unprofessional comments over the defendant’s e-mail system. The plaintiff charged the company for an invasion of privacy (Halburt, Igulli 2010, p. 73).

Finding: We do not have a reasonable expectation of private e-mail communication’s made between inventory and supervisor over company e-mail systems whether or not assurances of confidentiality given. The defendant’s tort, which alleged a violation of privacy, was thrown out of court (Halburt, Igulli 2010, p. 73).

The case of Pillsbury vs. US highlights conditions under which a person’s invasion of solitude is considered highly offensive, yet judged against the plaintiff on the grounds that such communications were injurious to the company. Other offensive invasions of privacy include unauthorized access into a into personal bank account landlord bugging a tenant (Epic, 2010). The 1968 Federal Wiretap Law, and the amended Electronic Indications Privacy Act 1986, ECPA, make it illegal to intercept, disclose or exchange messages without authorization. This is why employers require you to sign a consent form to be monitored on company networks. Some types of activities would be exempt from this law would be those that are, readily accessible to the general public, such as public chat rooms and blogging. In these cases the law does not require the person to give consent to monitoring.

In a recent industry survey, 92% of employers conduct electronic monitoring of employees via videotaping, monitoring IM chats and blogging as well as the GPS satellite tracking cars and cell phones (Halburt, Igulli 2010, p. 73). On average, 26% of companies have terminated employees for misuse of the Internet. Approximately another 25% of workers are reprimanded for the misuse of e-mail. Some companies carry out electronic monitoring randomly, on a spot check basis, using such electronic software monitoring programs which are s increasingly sophisticated (Halburt, Igulli 2010, p. 77). Software can monitors keystrokes and retrieve documents. A program called can monitor workplace telephone conversations. The super scout program can monitor the length of e-mail messages and XV mail searches the actual content e-mail message (Halburt, Igulli 2010, p. 77).

Businesses’ claim that it is a type of quality control in order to correct and improve their company performance and measure and encourage efficiency. It can aid in personal evaluations and uncover employee disloyalty which takes the form of stealing product supplies or trade secrets (Halburt, Igulli 2010, p. 77). The trend of privacy issues has begun to lean towards being more open, when it comes to business communication; while at the same time private personal information which falls under HIPAA remains tightly controlled.

The Japanese have typically used open office workspaces in their administrative areas for many years. In Western culture, business persons look to have their own office. But if they cannot have their own office, then they look to have their own private cubicle space. Unaware that the confines of the cubicle are mentally delimiting their ability to communicate openly.

“They provide pseudo-privacy at best, and are terrible for spontaneous communication,” says Franklin Becker, director of the International Workplace Studies Program at Cornell University. “Cubicles are acoustic sieves that intrude on your thoughts and conversations,” agrees Michael Brill, president of BOSTI Associates, a workplace planning and design consultant in Buffalo, N.Y., and founder of the School of Architecture at the University of Buffalo (Grossman, 2002).

With the ever-increasing trend of social networking activities being posted to publicly accessible websites, the concept of privacy as an electronic format increasingly is called into question. Say for example, you are talking publicly while shopping in an open air shopping mall conversing with her friend. You mentioned the sale of some rather extraordinary outfit and are overheard by a stranger passing by you. They seem to be in the same inclination to take advantage of that sale and they use the information, with which you have discussed with your friend, to go to that shop and purchase that outfit. It was a publicly open conversation overheard by someone in the public, and acted upon someone in the public. Social networking whether for business or pleasure becomes the same privacy environment as one walking through a busy mall, regardless of whether you were sitting in the privacy of your own home, or in a cubicle at an office.

Today’s work environment is changing in the fact that the cubicle environment is beginning to give way to the open office environment (Baker, 2011). This is an environment that simulates walking through an open mall with no enclosed spaces, the mobility to move around and the ability to see far beyond the confines of an isolated cubicle space. It is akin to working outdoors, which many self-employed do already. In future, the modern workspace will look more like an open lounge and mall, with Internet access via wireless throughout the building, open chairs and lounges, trees and sculptures, providing a scenic background and encouraging team interaction minus the confines of cubicle walls (Baker, 2011).

For instance, as Business 2.0 magazine recently reported, Cisco Systems structured its working environment so that workers can set up areas wherever they are needed in the building, after discovering that their heavy use of mobile technology resulted in cubicles that were vacant 35 percent of the time (Cubicles Today, 2011, para. 6).

Cubicle walls in and of themselves put up barriers between people and tend to stifle communication. With this new open communication, issues of privacy, once a concern in days past, will become a nonissue, because people will be speaking to one another as they were meant to, in person face-to-face without barriers negating the need to create their own personalized private space.

    Now that we have glimpsed open environment of the future, where cubicles or thing of the past and the workforce wanders in a lounge like mall setting, let us return to the mundane present. It is here that Herman, the car salesman manager, is monitoring the conversations of his salespersons on the open floor in order to provide some quality control for the sales pitch of his salesman. The salesman on the open floor, thinks nothing of being ‘advised’ or mildly reprimanded by the sales manager, because he is used to working in an open environment, where one-on-one conversations are the norm and acting and reacting to them is the normal course of business on the sales floor. However, when the female officemate who works in an enclosed area discovers that the sales manager has been monitoring electronically the floor salesman’s conversation, she is taken aback, and shocked that employees of the car dealership, are being subjected to close scrutiny by the manager’s electronic listening device. It is too much for her, so she says her piece and leaves the work place permanently. In hindsight, had the floor manager been on the floor beside the salesman when the conversation was taking place and then corrected him on the content of his pitch, undoubtedly no one would’ve thought the worse, because it would’ve seemed as a natural extension of an ongoing on conversation. This is what the open environment office will do, breakdown the barriers and resistance toward sharing information that is pertinent to the workplace and improves customer delivery and satisfaction. In the end, the overall result of an open workplace is that they will be little or no third-party surveillance, because people will interact openly on a one-to-one, face-to-face basis. Third-party surveillance is the slag, or unwanted fallout, resulting from the need for open communications in a world where people are still tied to a false sense of security of private spaces and private places.


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About Tommorrow's News, Today

Began career at the Pentagon as a Communications Specialist. Has been involved with commercial aerospace defense projects since 1984 with firms like TRW, Lockheed Martin, Boeing. Served in Iraq from 2003 to 2005 with Army Corps of Engineers supporting IED/Mine clearing operations and destroying Iraqi weapons stockpiles. Born in Bangkok, Thailand, adopted son of a career U.S. Foreign Service Officer. Current interests include democratic process reform, Nation / State Building, Technology Trends and Environmental Studies.
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