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How Much Privacy Should We Expect at Work?


Buried in our HR paperwork, most of us found (and promptly forgot about) a document outlining our rights regarding the use of our work-issued computer. In general, the bottom line is that we don’t really have any: the computers the company issues are for work use. The question is, does that mean that the company — or your colleagues — should be able to go into your computer at any time?


(Photo Credit: Alan Cleaver/Flickr)

That was the dilemma facing Karen Firestone, President and CEO of Aureus Asset Management, and contributor to HBR Blog Network. In a recent post, she outlined the problem:

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“I had been preparing a client presentation with several of my colleagues at our asset management firm. The night before the meeting, I reviewed the document on my laptop at home, noticing that several key pieces of information were missing. Early the next morning, I emailed the group to explain what we still needed, but one person was out and not easily accessible. We realized that the required data was only on his password protected computer. I didn’t know whether to unlock his computer or try to work around the problem.”

Firestone opted not to dig in her colleague’s computer, opting instead to assemble the information with the members of the team who were present that day. For her, the idea of hacking into another person’s computer was too much, regardless of whether or not she was technically “allowed” to do it.

Building Trust vs. Protecting the Company

In a cost-benefit analysis of a situation like the one Firestone faced, the time savings of hacking into the files might not be sufficient to outweigh any betrayal of trust the hackee might feel when she finds out about it later.

If, for example, Firestone had been debating a break-in to determine whether or not her coworker was up to no good, the case might be different, especially if the bad behavior exposed the company to embarrassment, loss of business, or legal sanctions.

So Do You Have the Right to Privacy on Your Work Computer?

Don’t count on it. According to FindLaw:

Employers can usually search an employee’s workspace, including their desk, office or lockers. The workspace technically belongs to the employer, and courts have found that employees do not have an expectation of privacy in these areas.

This is also the case for computers. Since the computers and networking equipment typically belong to the employer, the employer is generally entitled to monitor the use of the computer.

Whether or not your boss will choose to exercise those rights has a lot to do with her personal philosophy on snooping — and what’s at stake if she doesn’t snoop.

Tell Us What You Think

Should our computer use at work be private, or is it the company’s business (literally)? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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