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A Line Is Crossed

Of course employees should work at work. But cracking down on personal communication is getting into intrusive territory

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Somewhere in a company in Romania, an employee will certainly have been utterly horrified to find that his boss was reading his private messages. The current generation believes that using the mobile phone, WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, etc., even while at work is an inviolable birthright.

Evidently, employers don’t agree and neither does the European Court of Human Rights which has decreed that bosses are perfectly within their rights to look right into personal messages if they think their people are not working in office hours.

I find myself utterly shocked at such a conclusion and believe that a line has been crossed with that judgement. Having written about this issue many years ago, when companies were just walking past employees’ computers and discovering a thing called Facebook open on many screens, I see that nothing has changed. Even then, many companies just solved the problem by outright banning social media at work. Well, it just shifted from the obvious computer screen, to mobiles. Some tried to get employees to leave their mobiles at drop points outside the office. Employees just acquired more than one mobile. And now there’s to be a court order on this? At least in Europe. But before this becomes a precedent, it bears thinking about.

First, the direct impact on the very work that companies are trying to encourage. Blocking out social media is doing themselves a disservice. Information, news and communication on one’s chosen profession flows on social networks and employees will be left out of the loop. Even messengers are being used for news. Disallowing social media is cutting off a lifeline of information and the opportunity for employees to represent the brand online.

That aside, the part that is difficult to understand about the European court’s judgement is why there should be the necessity to read an employee’s messages. It should be enough to know whether a message is personal or in the work domain, not to go so far as to read it. To give licence to anyone to read private messages is opening up a can of worms.

While the Romanian who brought this whole issue to a head was actually chatting to his brother and fiancée about sexual problems of some sort, surely he isn’t representative of all employees who occasionally need to exchange a message with someone outside of work. “Do you want to meet after work?” for example, could take a moment and not impact work drastically. Or “Mom’s not feeling well,” which could possibly be more important than the job. Licensing a snooping regime could make all employees extremely uncomfortable, mistrusted, and unhappy. “I would leave,” a Twitter contact of mine said flatly.

While technology — in the form of distractions like Facebook — can take away from work sometimes, technology also allows for perfectly fair tracking of work. The sane thing to do is to enter a contract with an employee on what the output should be, and track the work, not the distractions. If the work falls below agreed levels, discuss, repair, move on. Or sack, if it isn’t working out. But focusing on personal communication is like looking under someone’s uniform to see if they’re wearing another set of off-work clothes. Surely companies want employees who work with their body, heart and soul, not just the body. And intruding into personal spaces will just mean, literally, shooting the messenger. It would also mean you have bodies at work, not hearts and souls.

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