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Spied on At Work Mark Swartz, M.B.A. M.Ed.

About the Author

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is Canada's Career Activist. His insights reach millions yearly as the Career Advisor, as author of the best seller "Get Wired, You're Hired," also as a professional speaker and coach on career/work issues. A former Toronto Star careers columnist, Mark's advice is forthright and practical. For Canada's biggest directory of free career articles, and for personalized coaching, please visit

If you think you have privacy in your office, think again

A story headline in the Business section of April 28's Globe and Mail: ''Cutting Back on Errors on the Job--One solution may be brain-monitoring headgear.''

Oh brave new world! What next, implanting RFID chips into our skulls so that every move we make can be tracked by our bosses? Oops, too late. News flash: In 2006, a video-surveillance firm, dealt with possible employee theft by implanting RFID (Radio Frequency ID) chips in the arms of two ''willing'' workers authorized to enter a secure room holding government surveillance videos.

Think your immune to this type of intrusion at work? Well now, lookie here at your plans for today. Maybe I'll just send a little e-mail to my buddy, attaching that funky YouTube video I downloaded here yesterday. Then call my boyfriend and quickly make plans for tonight. After lunch I'll pay my Fido phone bill online. How I pity my parents. They never had the freedom to communicate like we do.

Ah, the freedom to communicate. Released from the constraints of time and place. Able to do whatever we please simply by using the tools our kindly employers have provided us with: like a Blackberry, laptop, cell phone...

What's That Strange Clicking Noise On The Line? Only, who's listening in? Could be your employer, is who. 78% of U.S. companies use some sort of mechanism to track worker behaviour and messaging, according to the American Management Association.

From management's perspective, this can be a very good thing. An employer has the right to ensure that its staff is not involved in illegal activity, that company secrets are not being leaked, and that the company's property is not being used inappropriately. Recent litigation arising from abuse of the Internet and company e-mail makes it important for employers to know what their employees are doing. Like in the admittedly extreme National Defense Department case where a worker was caught with pages and pages of child pornography stored on the government's own server (your tax dollars hard at work?).

Also, having offending material of any sort in the workplace, then having it appear on people's screens or on their voicemail, puts the employer at risk of violating human rights codes by creating a ''poison environment,'' a term being used now in legal proceedings.

Basically an employer may be able to keep tabs on you electronically via your workplace computers (desktop or laptop--every program you use, each keystroke you make, each e-mail you send or receive, every internet site you visit--in real time). Also via phone and voicemail audits, or possibly even secret video cameras.

Case in point. A few years back I worked on contract for a client and had to spend a few weeks working in their office. I was given my own phone and computer to use while there. One morning I came in and noticed that someone had been rifling through the files on my PC. It happened again on several successive days. Given the restrictive permissions there I knew it had to be the boss. So I laid a trap. I seeded some of my file names with inklings of nasty things about this person. Like how they were known to be a miserable snoop with nothing better to do than violate the privacy of their workers. Funny thing: the next day I noticed that these particular files had been opened after I'd left for the day. Yet I never heard a peep from that nosy nuisance again. (Note: do not try this at home.)

But monitoring is not always limited to computers. Fact is that your company can check you out in all sorts of ways, especially in the private sector where no collective agreement exists to govern this murky area. Aside from doing so virtually, you can be spied on manually too. This ranges from getting other employees to watch you, to rifling through your desk once you've gone home. Hint: always lock your desk drawers when leaving, and take the keys with you.

Getting paranoid yet? Let's consider ourselves fortunate. In the U.S., the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is looking into such sinister developments as random drug checks, polygraph or lie-detector use, and off-the-job shadowing of staff members. Never mind the USA Today report of potential employers beginning to use biometrics, in this case fingerprint scanning, to see if applicants have criminal records, or even medical problems! Mind you, the government has just put forward a law that forbids employers from using your DNA results to deny you a job. Phew.

And in Canada at least there's case law emerging to limit the use of intrusive activities. An example is video-cameras in the office. Today they are only allowed to be used when there are probable grounds to suspect improprieties by a specific employee or group. On the other hand, the law implies there is no reasonable expectation of privacy when you are operating on behalf of your employer; whether on their premises, in your home, or at a client's. Especially when you are using your employer's equipment. But does this mean that when you write a letter to your secret love using a company pen that your boss has a right to look it over?

If, like most people, you're unsure of your rights and obligations in these matters, here's your recourse. Skim through your personnel manual to see if anything relevant is mentioned. Or consult your HR rep. If you're unionized, speak to your steward or ask for a copy of the collective agreement. As a final resort, consult an employment lawyer who specializes in privacy issues.

Meanwhile, some tips on how to avoid getting caught in the dragnet at work.
  • Lock your computer with a password.
  • Keep Passwords Private.
  • Pay Bills at Home.
  • Don't Blog About Work in a way that could identify you.
  • Keep any purchases on a Company Credit Card purely business.
  • Minimize personal phone calls on company time.
  • Know that your company-provided Blackberry might store everything you type on your company's server.
  • Don't think instant messaging is less permanent than e-mail.
Yeah, it's a drag that we finally have all this fabulous technology at our fingertips, only to discover that it can easily be used against us. Makes you want to reach for a copy of George Orwell's 1984, or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. If only just to glimpse a view of our potentially mechanized, privacy non-existent futures. Only don't buy it from in the middle of your work day: you never know if the boss is watching you shop.

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