Working Wounded: Keeping it Private

DEAR WOUNDED: We've had a lot of questions recently about privacy in our company. I've decided to develop a policy, but I'm not sure where to start.

ANSWER: Your e-mail reminded me of a 23-year-old man who was hit by a subway car at New York City's 34th Street station. He had simply leaned over the tracks to see if a train was coming. Unfortunately he turned the wrong way and a train coming from the other direction hit him. Ouch.

Privacy polices can be a lot like that. You spend your time looking at privacy from one direction (what is best for the company) and you end up getting blindsided from a totally different direction (employees thinking you don't respect them). That's why it's so important to be sure that you look at privacy from a number of different directions before you stick out your neck to announce a policy. For more, check out "The Boss's Survival Guide" by Rosner, Halcrow and Levins (McGraw Hill, 2001).

Do you follow the law? Even though the U.S. Constitution never once mentions the word "privacy," the Supreme Court has ruled there is a "penumbra" of rights that address the issue. And many states have additional laws concerning privacy. So it's very important to begin by examining federal and state laws to be sure that your policy is in compliance.

Do you clearly establish employee expectations? Employee handbooks, job applications and all written policies should clearly establish your privacy policy. If your policy maintains that you have a right to inspect, search, test and check for illegal substances and objects, illegal activity and improper use of company equipment, you should communicate this to your employees early and often.

Do you focus on business reasons? "The Boss's Survival Guide" reminds us "Just because you can search an employee's desk doesn't make it a good idea." It's important to have a compelling reason to search. Some possible valid reasons include suspicions that the employee is stealing, misusing company equipment or is engaged in illegal activity.

Do you stay out of people's private lives? Four states (California, Colorado, New York and North Dakota) ban any employer restrictions on lawful activities after work hours. Even if your state doesn't expressly ban restrictions on activities during employees free time, it makes sense to not go there if you can help it.

Do you only search as a last resort? Sometimes you can get to the source of the problem by just talking to the employee. So before you go all CSI on someone, consider just sitting down and having a conversation.

Do you follow your own policy? This may sound overly simplistic, but once the policy is in place, be careful to follow it. Remarkably, most companies get in trouble because they fail to follow their own rules.

Follow these tips, and you shouldn't be blindsided by any nasty surprises in your privacy policy.

We'd like to hear your strategy for dealing with privacy at work. I'll give an autographed copy of "Working Wounded: Advice that adds insight to injury" (Warner, 2000) to the best submission. Send your entry, name & address via: or via e-mail: Entries must be received by Wednesday (Feb. 8).

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