How important is an individual's privacy in the workplace? Is an individual's privacy in the workplace the most important consideration to be taken into account? What constitutes privacy in a workplace environment? Do the goals and the mission of the organization supersede an individual's desire to protect his or her privacy? Is it ethical for an employer to collect and disperse personal information from employees without their knowledge? How does the philosophy of utilitarianism play into this issue? This paper delves into those questions and provides supporting information for the resolution of this issue.
After careful review of the textbook for this course, after reviewing additional scholarly resources and taking into consideration a utilitarian approach to this issue -- and after researching the Australian laws regarding workplace privacy -- this paper takes the position that an individual's privacy is indeed vitally important (and must by law be protected) but not as important as the quality of effort put forward by the employee in terms of teamwork, production, and competency vis-a-vis the goals and purposes of the organization.
Additional backup justification for the thesis
Companies and small businesses are the engines that drive the Australian economy, and government should pass legislation -- and government has passed laws -- to protect individual privacy. But looking at the theory of utilitarianism -- "Actions are right to the degree they tend to promote the greatest good for the greatest number" -- the greatest number in this context is the company itself and all the workers. If a company struggles in the marketplace because a substantial number of employees are giving only 60 to 70% of their best efforts (and the other 30 to 40% of the time they are engaged in personal conversations online or other distractions), that company is failing and this could mean layoffs for workers who depend on their income to support families. Happiness is of course a relative and vague concept; to a company happiness is a healthy bottom line and to middle managers happiness is having your boss be pleased with the production on their units. Because of the diversity of employees in any given work environment, happiness comes in myriad shades and colors.
What is meant by privacy in the workplace?
According to the Australian Government's "Best Practice Guide" (Fair Work Ombudsman), matters of privacy in the workplace relate to what information management has a right to collect and retain. Also, privacy in the workplace entails the question of what information is appropriate for an employer to share with other entities. Privacy entails more than just matters of personal information such as where one was born or a person's financial status. Privacy has to do with "…being able to do things without interference by others," the Fair Work Ombudsman explains.
But basically "personal information" is private information unless an individual worker is willing to disclose that information. Clearly some personal information is legitimately provided to employers (a person's address, age, work experience, and more). But there are matters that are personal and private and should be respected by employers as such. That includes an employee's: sexual preference; political views and associations; religious affiliations; ethnicity; health and genetic information (Fair Work Ombudsman).
The Fair Work Ombudsman explains that federal privacy laws (National Privacy Principles -- NPPs) relate to standards in Australia that employees are obliged to adhere to. When an employer gathers information about a particular employee, that employer should notify the worker that certain information is being gathered -- and moreover, the employer should let the employee know what the purpose is for the gathering of personal information. That said, the employer should also make any information gathered about an employee available for review by that employee.
As to sharing personal information from employees to third parties, the Fair Work Inspector from the government has the right to request information about workers when that information relates to legal obligations the employer must meet. The Fair Work Ombudsman best practice policy permits an employer to disclose personal information when another employer is requesting reference data -- but in most cases, it is considered best practice to notify the employee that his or her performance at work is the subject of an inquiry from a potential employer.
When it comes to the use of email and the Internet while at work, just because an employer gives a new hire a password and login code doesn't mean that the employee's private conversations online are not monitored. Here is an instance in which the employer is using best practice policies by notifying the worker that his or her emails can be (and likely will be) monitored. In addition, it is best practice for the company to be fully open with transparency vis-a-vis notifying the employee as to what is expected, what is prohibited, who has access to personal information and what the consequences are for improper use of the Internet / email.
The Fair Work Act 2009 allows for the collection of personal information on an employee when a complaint is lodged by the employee or: "…when you email or telephone the Fair Work Ombudsman"; when an investigation is ongoing by the Fair Work Ombudsman; or when a Fair Work Ombudsman is auditing a company or a campaign (Fair Work Ombudsman). Regarding the rights of the employee, he or she has the right to be told why personal information is being gathered; and employees have the right to be protected against "unauthorized access" to his or her personal information. In addition, personal information cannot be shared with another person or organization unless the employee gives permission or if the information is "required by law" or "necessary to prevent "…or lessen a serious threat to the life or health of another individual" (Fair Work Ombudsman).
Why is workplace privacy an important issue in Australia?
The fact is that some employers "…unhesitatingly rummage through the files of their workers" even though those files may have "Private" written in big bold letters gives workers pause regarding whether their private information is being shared without their knowledge or permission, according to the textbook. The textbook asserts (p. 446) that employers peek into emails and even "eavesdrop on their employees' phone calls" -- and recent research found that 65% of Australian companies monitor employee emails without notifying employees that this policy is ongoing (446). And there are other apparent violations of employee privacy but the more salient point is found on page 447 of the textbook: "Even when a genuine privacy right is identified, the strength of that right depends on circumstances."
Moreover, it is certainly true in Australia as in other countries that corporations and smaller businesses (and other organizations) do have "legitimate interests that may conflict with the privacy concerns of employees" (447). But the larger question (after taking the previous sentence into consideration) is this: when is it morally justifiable to infringe on employee's privacy?
Rebuttals to points made in previous two paragraphs
While it is wrong for any company to eavesdrop on an employee's emails if the employee has not been notified that this policy is in place, any alert, technology-competent worker knows that his or her emails in a company environment could easily be accessed by supervisors. Employees are working with technology that does not belong to them; therefore, when the company owns the computer and the software and an employee is asked to perform specific tasks on that equipment, it is fair for the company to assume the worker will confine use of those technologies to tasks assigned by the company, and not for personal usage.
Again, this doesn't justify intrusion into personal letters and messages, but unless the worker is sending emails on his or her own smartphone -- or computer -- if a company computer is being used for private, personal communication, all bets are off as far as assuming those communications will remain private.
Certainly companies have the right to expect their workers to dress appropriately and conduct themselves with good behavior. The textbook notes that in some cases an employee might be asked to wear clothing that is provocative. There is a logical rebuttal to that problem: when applying for the position the employee certainly should know what is expected out in front. There may be cases where this is not plainly spelled out, but in most cases the expectations of the company or organization is clearly obvious. If a young woman is applying to Hooters for a job as a server, surely that applicant knows what to expect as far as apparel on the job.
Informed consent on the job
There is a fine line between asking an employee to voluntarily take a personality test and demanding that the employee take the test. If asked to take a test that is said to be "voluntary," then the employee is being offered free choice and should not be docked or in any penalized for refusing to take it. However, once the test is taken, then…