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Are our work messages as private as we think?

We all need to vent about tasks or colleagues sometimes. But if we gripe on work devices, can our bosses read our messages? I asked myself this question many years ago when I was still working in Germany. Now, as a retiree, I might be my own boss but I am still communicating with people around the world. Those employees all still have a supervisor, chef or boss.
Ask yourself: have you ever had a bad day at work, complained to colleagues about it over an internal messaging app and then worried that your boss might be able to read all of your complaints? Turns out, you have every right to be concerned; communications on a work device are rarely as private as they may seem. British writer Mark Johanson helped me and you, my dear readers,  a lot with some interesting answers and links.

In July, Netflix fired three marketing executives for messages criticising colleagues on what they thought was a private Slack channel. Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos explained in a LinkedIn post that it was not a simple case of employees venting on Slack, but rather “critical personal comments made over several months about their peers”, including during meetings when those peers were presenting. “It’s also worth noting that we don’t proactively monitor Slack or email,” he continued. “The Slack channel was open, so anyone could access the conversations even though the employees concerned thought it was private.”  Wow, here we are!

I strongly agree with Mark Johanson in saying that workers are often seduced by the illusion of privacy when it comes to workplace communications, mistakenly believing that they can privately chat, send emails or even videoconference on a company computer without their employer viewing that information afterwards. Yet, what appears private in the moment can often become public with the click of a button. The reality is that technology exists for employers to track virtually all workplace communications by all employees at all times, even if companies are rarely transparent about the level to which they do this.

So, where should companies draw the line – and what should workers bear in mind before they send that unguarded message?

“Employees should assume that whenever they’re using work owned and issued equipment, anything that they may do – including written communications or websites they may visit – is subject to review,” says Boston-based Heather Egan Sussman, head of law firm Orrick’s global Cyber, Privacy & Data Innovation Group. Very well said and very true!

Of course, there are legitimate reasons why companies monitor internal communications. Sussman says that companies in sectors including financial services are heavily regulated and need to proactively monitor communications as part of their compliance programmes. Anyone who deals with sensitive materials (such as health records or government contracts) may also be proactively monitored, to protect the company’s business, reputation and resources.

Companies outside these sectors often take a more reactive approach, says Sussman, capturing communications through a records-retention programme (which archives data for a set period of time) and then looking back on that information only when it’s necessary to address an issue. This includes not only messages and emails, but often video calls on Skype, Zoom or Teams, too, which can be recorded and logged.

Brian Kropp, chief of research for global research and advisory firm Gartner’s HR practice, based in the Washington DC area, says the only time companies really go back and look through these communications is when there is reason to believe there’s been some sort of performance management problem, data theft, harassment or other complaint that warrants an internal investigation. General griping that doesn’t target an individual is rarely cause for concern. Similarly, everyday managers don’t typically have the ability to freely conduct keyword searches for things like their names.

I learned that when companies do suspect unprofessional behaviour has taken place, there are minimal restrictions to prevent them scrutinising employees’ workplace communications. Even though US and European laws do protect communications on things like collective bargaining, Kropp says that, “anywhere in the world, there’s no legal requirement that says employers have to inform you about the data they are collecting about you”.

My advice: Keep that in mind – in a professional environment, it may be best to assume that you’re being monitored and behave accordingly. The best way to share frustrations is “face-to-face” or with private units not linked to your work. Since we are all social media fans, try to avoid communicating also here on a work-owned device. It  can open you up to monitoring.

Email: doringklaus@gmail.com or follow me on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter or visit my www.germanexpatinthephilippines.blogspot.com or www.klausdoringsclassicalmusic.blogspot.com .


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