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Friday, March 09, 2007

Think That Conversation From Your Office Phone Is Private? Think Again

News reports thata Wal-Mart employee taped telephone conversations between a New York Times reporter and other Wal-Mart employees brings to light the practice of corporations who require employees to consent to company surveillance of calls made through company systems and equipment.

Wal-Mart officials have said the employee in the recently reported case was not authorized to make the recordings and adds that company policy restricts monitoring of employee communications to instances in which fraud or criminal activity is suspected, according to a Vanderbilt University statement.

However, that policy is not a requirement. "We know from recent surveys by groups such as the American Management Association and others that many firms do routinely monitor employee communications that employees might think are private, without cause of suspicion," says Bruce Barry, professor of management and sociology. "This means workers, especially in the private sector, work under the threat that their expressive activity is being watched, which has the effect of chilling free expression that might have nothing to do with the corporation, or that might involve whistleblowing regarding corporate misbehavior."

Barry has focused recent research on free expression in and around the workplace from legal, managerial, and ethical perspectives. He is the author of a soon-to-be-published book on the subject, Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace.

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Blogger senk8105 said...

Bravo to Bruce Barry for speaking out in such powerful detail about an issue that affects us all. Discussion over the issues raised in _Speechless_ is long overdue.

Ironically, in our “Bushed,” “pro-business,” deliberately job-scarce economy, with its frightening assaults upon both free expression and workers’ living standards and other most basic rights, the very possibility of employment discrimination that Barry so well documents is what keeps many thoughtful working people from themselves speaking up and speaking out about these very issues--and others that affect them most.

As Barry notes, while actual incidents of employers penalizing employees and job applicants for expressive activities might be relatively rare, the very fact that it can and does occur is enough to silence many workers. This is not only an infringement of basic individual rights and, as Barry so well notes, a baleful influence upon the overall health and quality of free and open discourse and debate in our “free” society, but (as I’ve been pointing out for over 20 years) is also a major brake upon much-needed political, social, and, yes, economic change and progress in modern America.

Employers that fret about, for example, off-hours expressive activities of employees and applicants and seek “digital dirt” on them rather than concentrate on on-the-job skills and performance infringe on employees’ and job seekers’ privacy and dignity–and undermine our most basic rights and freedoms.

Once one allows any employer to dictate one aspect of one’s private life, where does it stop?

Why not require employees and job applicants to submit to employer monitoring–again, the technology for this is already widely available!–of whatever they, even (indeed, especially) on their own time and off employer premises, read, watch, or listen to; who they associate with and what kinds of groups they’re in; what Web sites they visit and what they send or receive online; and the like?

We can’t have employees who dare to write or read postings like this one or otherwise explore, much less spread, ideas about “controversial issues” that the employer might not like, such as notions about fairer tax policies and a stronger “social safety net,” or–horror of horrors–about (gasp!) working people actually having rights, now, can we?

While many private employers, commendably, do respect the inherent rights of employees and job applicants to engage in political activities and otherwise lead their lives away from work free of employer coercion or interference, some do not. In an era when the Internet and other forms of modern technology make it frighteningly easy for employers and others to find out about many aspects of our personal lives we’ve long regarded as personal, this can have chilling implications.

As National Workrights Institute (NWI) legal director Jeremy Gruber has noted, these implications and the actions of certain employers pose grave dangers for our society, our freedoms, and for each of us. As he put it, employers who delve into our lives outside of work “are making decisions based on information not submitted by the employee or references. It is wholly unrelated to the employment relationship,”

What’s more, Gruber added, “The idea that when you hire someone, you should be able to look at every aspect of their personal life is completely at odds of how a democratic society should operate. It has huge consequences for freedom in this country, when people are afraid or are changing their behavior because of what a potential future employer might say or do.”

Any society where this is so is not a truly free society.

Employment discrimination based on off-the-job political activities, indeed, now seems to be rising to a level not known since the era of McCarthyism.

Many people, especially in today’s job-scarce economy, are now hesitant to take part in any form of political activism–writing a letter to a newspaper, calling a radio talk show, posting on the Internet, taking part in a march or a rally–for fear that their employer might somehow frown on such actions.

Indeed, in 2002, during a long job hunt after a 2001 layoff, I was once denied a plum job as an editor with a nonprofit educational association in part because of what the employer, when I challenged its vague (and contradiction-ridden) claim of things being simply a matter of “subtle factors” involving “fit”–meanwhile, I suspected and alleged sex discrimination (the editorial department involved was all-female and stayed so)–called, in McCarthyesque terms, my “record of being involved in controversial issues,” namely, feminism and children’s rights–never brought up in any interview, but found after the “responsible” employer decided to do an Internet search.

This sleazy practice, too, while disturbing and reprehensible, is in many states, mine included, still apparently legal. This, too, must be stopped through legislation like California’s, which specifically forbids employers from dictating or attempting to dictate employees’ political activity.

Better yet, every state and Congress should adopt legislation, as a few states (such as North Dakota) have, protecting the right of employees and job applicants to engage in any lawful off-hours, off-premises activities they choose.

Generally, such activities are none of an employer’s business unless they pose an actual and substantial conflict of interest or otherwise materially and substantially impair one’s ability to do one’s job.

It is time to reclaim your and our rights–before we are all forced to live at the mercy of abusive employers in a nationwide, high-tech Pottersville, a modern version of the company town right out of George Orwell’s _1984_ or Ira Levin’s Stepford, one that controls not only our work but our other actions, our minds, and our souls “24/7."

It is not about the bottom line; it’s about power and control. Let’s reclaim our rights.

So urge your state and federal lawmakers to support legislation protecting the rights of employees and job applicants to engage in lawful off-hours, off-employer-premises activities without fear of employment discrimination.

Let’s say to employers: Our skills, attention, and loyalty are yours eight hours a day, 40 hours a week; the rest of our lives belong to us, and to us alone. For not only ourselves but our fellow citizens and future generations, we are taking back our lives, our privacy, and our rights.

For your rights and mine,

Scott Enk


"We will not walk in fear, one of another. . . . We are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes which were for the moment unpopular. This is no time . . . to keep silent. . . .

"We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom--what's left of it--but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home."

--Edward R. Murrow, at the end of the immortal 1954 segment of his CBS television program _See It Now_ in which he exposed Senator Joseph R. McCarthy

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

--Martin Luther King Jr.

6:21 PM  

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