Ethics, Privacy in the Workplace Essay

Ethics, Privacy in the Workplace Essay.


The aim of this essay is to provide a supportive argument – “for” the notion that an individual’s privacy is more important than any other considerations in the workplace. Workplace scenarios will be outlined including job applications, storage of personal information, Internet and email, information technology effects on privacy, workplace policies and procedures and medical privacy. Differing ethical theories will be applied to both sides of the argument.

The Individual’s Privacy in the workplace
Getting the job.

The story is often heard in Australia how easy it was for people to gain employment in the economically booming 1960’s and early 1970’s; of how people would walk into a workplace in the morning and get a job straight away or within a couple of days jobseeking.

Resumes, application letters and application forms were unheard of unless you were applying for a professional level position. As competition for jobs increased in the mid 1970’s and early 1980’s more and more selection tools were required when hiring new staff.

Resume’s detailing training, past employment and referees assisted in the selection or rejection of new staff. Applicants are not required to list information in their Resume such as marital status, gender, political leanings, religion, date of birth and number of children as part of equal employment opportunity legislation. In government based agencies in particular, merit based recruitment is stressed.

Whilst in small privately owned businesses, employers still prefer to recruit new staff who are known to them or who are recommended friends of existing staff members. With current federal legislative requirements regarding unfair dismissal rules, employers must use care when employing new staff. A job seeker expects their private information to be handled with trust and discretion. The employer expects information to be relevant so they can make an accurate assessment of the job seeker. When it comes to ethics, both parties are acting in their own best interests. The seeker wants a job which is rewarding and lucrative in return for their effort.

The employer wants the most skilled person for the least financial outlay possible so that business goals and healthy profits can be achieved. By applying the ethical consequential theory of Egoism regarding privacy, both parties are acting out of self-interest which best serves their own long term goals. According to psychological egoism, humans are by nature – selfish. The jobseeker will divulge only enough personal information which will enable them to get and keep the job. The employer seeks to find out as much information as possible about the jobseeker so that their business is not damaged in the long run by selecting an inappropriate candidate. Shaw (2009) Page 59

Stored Information

Traditionally an employee’s basic personal information such as their resume, emergency contact details, and bank details would usually be kept on hard file in a locked personnel filing cabinet. Personal information shared amongst work colleagues was up to the discretion of the employee and staff encouraged to leave personal problems or beliefs at home. With the advent of information technology systems becoming more commonplace, communications though shared databases, email, intranet, internet and even social media have largely replaced paper files in storing company and personal information. Besides conducting simple one to one personal communication in the workplace, our personal and private information is shared in cyberspace with and without our express permission and may be accessed off site by internal staff or external IT support contractors with administrative access. Websites visited and programs/files accessed on work computers in work time can be logged and monitored.

This database of information needs to be protected from improper use and access by unauthorised people. The employee expects that the privacy of their information is protected. Monitoring IT usage at work by the employer may be seen as an action in the interests of the business but it can also be seen as an erosion of trust in the employer/worker contract relationship. The Fair Work Australia Ombudsman recommends that employers “implement best practice when maintaining privacy in the workplace. Employers, employees and their representatives need to know what information may be collected and retained and if it can be passed on to others.

This best practice creates certainty and security for both employers and employees.” Fair Work Australia(2010) Page 1 If the non-consequentialist ethical theory of Kantism is applied to this scenario, employers are expected to do the right thing as an act out of duty and by these moral principles the employee information is protected. Under Kantism if an employer was to mishandle this private information by for example selling it to third parties, this action would be morally wrong. Employers may justify their actions in logging internet and computer activity as a means to reduce “goldbricking” or “cyber-slacking” which is defined as employee’s using company internet accounts for personal / inappropriate use whilst giving the outward appearance of being busy with their work. Employees may see this as an invasion of privacy if they have not been informed or consented in their employment contract of this monitoring occurring.

With Kant’s theory an employee’s actions of cyber-slacking would be considered morally wrong as they are not doing the right thing by their employer. By the same token the action of monitoring a workers use of the internet or email without their consent would also be considered immoral under Kant’s theory of ethics. Shaw (2009) Page 452 Fair Work Australia also says that “Password and login codes may give employees the impression that their email and web browsing activities during work hours are private and not aware that their activities can be scrutinised by their employer.” Fair Work Australia (2010) Page 3 Employers should provide clear workplace policies and procedures to ensure all parties understand the rights and responsibilities that apply to email and internet usage.

Prescriptive guidance would detail the amount of appropriate personal email and internet usage within and outside the workplace that is allowable; prohibited activities and repercussions; legislation; how usage is logged and audited; and who has access to this information. Similar rules would apply to workplace landline and mobile phone usage. Fair Work Australia (2010) Page 4-5 By applying the consequentialist ethical theory of Utilitarianism to IT usage monitoring, the morally right action provides for the greatest happiness for all those affected, e.g., workload is shared evenly amongst staff; secret, divisive conversations are less likely to occur online and it is also a potential way to avoid potential conflicts in the workplace. Employers would use Utilitarianism to justify their actions in monitoring staff IT practices. An employee applying Egoism in this instance could argue that logging staff’s IT usage is an invasion of privacy and not in their interest, therefore morally wrong. Shaw (2009) Page 92

Privacy beyond the workplace

Most people believe that what they do and the opinions they have in the privacy of their own home is private, however social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter can sometimes be viewed by third parties depending on privacy settings. It is believed that employers have viewed the social media sites of potential new workers to assess their suitability to the job. In an article in the Daily Mail newspaper (UK) the story claims that one in five bosses have rejected job applicants after viewing their social media sites.

According to a survey by public relations company Eurocom Worldwide, “’The 21st-century human is learning that every action leaves an indelible digital trail,’ said Mads Christensen, Network Director at Eurocom “ Reynolds (2012) In Australia, Telstra conducted a business survey which resulted in similar figures of more than 12.5% of bosses checking job applicants Facebook pages and turning away potential employees based on things they have seen on Facebook. “Top social media behaviours cited by bosses as leading to a candidate being ruled out are: •Posting negative comments about their workplace with 44% saying this could rule out an applicant •Posts/comments which are discriminatory (37%)

•Inappropriate pictures posted on their profile (32%) •Posts/comments which contain confidential information (32%)” and 10% of employers use Facebook and other social networking sites to keep an eye on employee’s productivity. Symons (2011) Page 1 Employers say the biggest mistakes their current employees make on social networking sites are: “1. Posting negative comments about their workplace, with 26% saying this is the biggest mistake. 2. Posting confidential information (16%)

3. They post or are tagged in inappropriate pictures on their profile (14%) 4. Posting discriminatory comments (11%)
5. Posting comments/photos/links during work hours (10%) “ Symons (2011) Page 2
Part of the key argument regarding personal privacy is:

Do employers have the right to make judgements about potential or current employees based on information in social media sites? Surely this is not an accurate indication of their work skills and loyalty to a business as these social media sites are (usually) created when staff are not at work. It is tantamount to spying on a person in their private hours where their opinions are not necessarily those of their employer. The bosses may also have dubious moral and ethical behaviours outside of work hours, however the employer’s position of authority and power gives an unfair advantage over the worker. David W. Ewing devised an employees’ bill of rights where “No employee shall be penalized for engaging in outside activities of his or her choice after working hours…nor for expressing views contrary to top management.”

Shaw (2009) Page 488 The employer would argue that viewing the content on an employee’s social media site is indicative of that individual’s moral standards which may in turn be detrimental to the company’s reputation, e.g. a primary school teacher with sexually provocative images of themselves may be deemed inappropriate behaviour and detrimental to the reputation and public perception of the school. Employers could justify their actions of looking into the private lives of their employee’s with Egoism and Kantism. It is in the employer’s interest to monitor the integrity of their staff – on and off the job. And inappropriate behaviour even if it is outside the workplace is detrimental to the reputation of the organisation they work for. The employee could take the moral stance using Virtue Ethics of which they consider themselves to be a moral and virtuous person by their routine behaviour whilst working and that they shouldn’t be judge by the actions they take outside of work. Shaw (2009) Page 88

Employee Medical Privacy

Most recently there has been a report that Employers have been going along with employees to medical appointments and in some cases asking for medical certificates to be altered so that their employees can return to work earlier. The ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions) assistant secretary Michael Borowick has revealed that “the privacy of ill workers has been eroded, Employers, insurers and employer representatives are increasingly attending actual medical appointments with injured workers and, in some cases, forcing workers to attend company doctors. We’ve also had reports of doctors being pressured to change medical certificates and return-to-work plans.”

In May 2012, construction materials supplier Boral was warned by Fair Work Australia against allowing supervisors to accompany injured staff into doctors’ consulting rooms, with the workplace umpire saying it had the potential to operate unfairly. The Fair Work Ombudsman said that the “Fair Work Act does not contain express provisions regarding whether an employer can accompany an employee to a medical appointment or have a private conversation with a doctor regarding the employee’s medical condition.” Wilkins (2012) It is incredible to imagine that such an intrusion of intimate personal privacy is occurring in the workplace let alone that there is scant legislation to prevent it.

An employer could argue that it is in the interest of the company to ensure that employees are acting honestly in relation to the true nature of their illness as sick days cost the company money in delays and decreased productivity. Marketplace competitiveness is affected and workers compensation costs may also increase. By applying Utilitarianism theory, an employer may justify this action as it promotes the general welfare of the company and is result orientated.

Whereas the employee may argue that utilitarianism is focused on the results of the action not whether the action is morally right or wrong for the privacy of the individual worker. In conclusion – on balance the argument of the notion that an individual’s privacy is more important than any other consideration in the workplace is affirmed. We now live in a society where we think we are in control of our personal and private details when in reality our opinions, movements, interests and affiliations are being monitored constantly without our knowledge. An individual’s right to privacy is dependent largely on the amount of information they share face to face, in writing or on the internet. It seems unfair that personal privacy should be sacrificed for corporate gain.

Shaw, W., Barry, V., & Sansbury, G. (2009) Moral Issues in Business (1st Asia-Pacific ed.), Cengage Learning. Melbourne, Australia

Andrejevic, M. Commercial surveillance in the digital era, Living Ethics: issue 87 (autumn 2012) Heersmink, R., van den Hoven, J., Jan van Eck, N.,
van den Berg, J. Bibliometric mapping of computer and information ethics (2011) Legislation

Privacy Act (1988) Commonwealth of Australia
Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act (1998) NSW
Web Articles
“A quarter of bosses head to Facebook to vet CV’s” THE VECCI BLOG, “Bosses heading online to screen job candidates”, The Victorian Employer’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VECCI) 2011

Fair Work Australia, 2010 Symons, P., Telstra Corporation Australia 2011 Newspaper Articles

Reynolds, E., The Daily Mirror (UK) 2012 Wilkins, G., “Bosses intruding on workers’ doctor visits” Sydney Morning Herald, September 26, 2012

Ethics, Privacy in the Workplace Essay

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