Deception is harder in a digital world

One quick scan of the business press will tell you that on-the-job ethics seem to be at an all-time low. In case after case, big executives are caught in their webs of corporate deception. But the irony is that it is becoming incredibly difficult to lie, cheat and steal in a digital world.

Computers seem to capture our every move on the job these days, recording subtle transactions or activities that can come back later to haunt you. In most cases, an employer has the right to know how you make use of company-owned resources, including your time while at work. This monitoring isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as it doesn't get abusive or interfere with an individual's right to privacy.

Take e-mail, for example. Most employees understand that their business e-mail accounts are a corporate resource, provided by the employer as a tool to get one's work done. That doesn't stop people from using company e-mail to exchange all sorts of information that has nothing to do with a company's business. Many employers will tolerate a small amount of innocent misuse, letting people conduct social transactions such as sending a quick personal note to a friend, photos of the new baby to family members, and so on.

Increasingly, however, companies are monitoring e-mail using content filters, and I'm not talking about weeding out spam. Suspicious messages passing through a content filter can be trapped and acted on appropriately, very often without the employee's knowledge. Sometimes the consequences aren't pleasant.

I know of one instance where an employee lost her job through her own lack of integrity (and common sense). She arranged an interview with a competitor using her then-current employer's e-mail system. A filter trapped the note and forwarded it to human resources and to her manager, who noted that she called in sick on the day of the planned interview. When she returned to work the next day, the manager asked her whereabouts on the previous day. When the employee said she was at home, sick, the manager produced the e-mail proving the arrangements for the interview. Admitting her deception, the employee was dismissed for misuse of company e-mail and lying about her use of company-paid time.

Digitally monitoring employees at work is becoming more pervasive as employers grow concerned about increasing productivity. I just read about a law firm that makes its office workers "punch in" by placing a thumb on a biometric reader each time an employee enters or leaves the office. One secretary admitted that it forced her to be more mindful of the length of her lunch breaks, knowing she could be docked for extra time spent out of the office. While employees might resent the oversight, companies have the right to know people are present during the time they are being paid to be there.

As the technical professionals responsible for deploying, managing and perhaps even monitoring the systems that keep track of employees, I'm not sure we do enough to make people aware they are being watched. Yes, there's that splash screen that pops up when someone logs on to the network that says "this system is for company use only," implying acceptance of the policy when continuing on. People might read it the first time they get onto the network, but mostly it's an annoying screen that slows down the logon process.

I'd like to see more companies have regular employee training about the implications of digital monitoring. You don't have to reveal all the techniques you use to monitor people, but you should make them aware that virtually nothing they do on a computer is private. While browsing eBay during lunch isn't illegal, it still isn't right, if the employer has said this is inappropriate use of the company network. The idea is not to frighten employees, or to make them paranoid about Big Brother, but to enlighten them about company policy and the expectations for responsible use of the computer network.

- Musthaler is vice president of Currid & Company Inc., a Houston technology assessment firm. She can be reached at linda@currid.com.

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