Blurring the Borders

Today’s new technologies have enabled employees to bring work home. But they have also made it easier for people to bring their personal life to work. While most organizations understand the need for flexibility, they are also well aware that increased access can cut both ways.

Pedro Forment, a lawyer working out of Ford & Harrison’s Miami office, has seen plenty of employee misconduct during his career. The shenanigans of upper management at one of his clients, a California IT company, could have supplied a soap opera scribe with a year’s worth of plotlines.  “One guy was soliciting prostitutes,” says Forment. “There were all these e-mails when he would go on business trips saying, ‘What services will I get for 190 roses?’ ‘Roses’ was a euphemism for dollars.”

More seriously, the same connections and technologies that enable employees to pay their bills, blog, shop, surf the Web and e-mail during work hours also enable employers to ask workers to do more work at home or on the road. Most of the time, that pen drive will hold information and documents needed to do legitimate work away from the office, the cell phone will enable employers to easily contact employees and the Internet virtually replicates workplace resources at home or on a laptop. But when employees routinely take work home, they may be carrying reams of confidential, crucial and valuable information that can inadvertently be accessed by people all over the world.

How can employers manage the proper use of technology?

Do the Right Thing

Steve Rubel, a marketing strategist who is a senior vice president at the Edelman PR agency located in New York, N.Y., faces an increasingly common work/personal life challenge: how to blog about your personal interests when your personal interests overlap, to a great extent, with the work you do.

Rubel was hired by Edelman in part on the strength of Micro Persuasion, Rubel’s enormously popular website that serves as a source for information and opinion on the intersection of technology, media and marketing. “Edelman has a very comprehensive policy and it’s been recently expanded to include some systems by which if you want to blog about a client, we’re encouraged to seek out the person who works for that client and ask them if it’s okay,” he says. However, he notes, “I just usually don’t do that, because it takes a long time, and usually when I have an idea I want to post it.”

In any case, he adds, “the company does not really have any direct control over the blog. Nobody’s checking it every day. But at the same time, you have to be careful what you say, because it can have ramifications.”

The Policies of Persuasion

Despite the murky boundaries of this new world, there are common sense — and legally smart — policies and procedures that employers can put into place to protect themselves and their employees from liability.

Employers should be especially careful not to pry into employees’ personal lives — or, more accurately, not punishing employees for engaging in lawful activities outside the workplace, even if those activities are distasteful to the employer, says Richard Block, a partner at The Employment Law Group of Block Bernstein & Lagasse, part of Dreier LLP, located in New York, N.Y.

Employers also need to be cautious when seeking out information about prospective job candidates on the Web. “When recruiters see information related to topics covered by discrimination laws, they should be cautious,” Block says. Since hiring decisions based on an applicant’s disability can be construed as biased, an employer is in a better legal position if they are unaware of the disability.

On the flip side, Forment and Rubel agree that companies need to have a strict policy, or set of policies, about the personal use of the employer’s technology. They also need to be clear that at work, employees should have no expectation of privacy. That means e-mails can be read and Web surfing monitored.

“Simply having a policy is never going to be enough if you’re turning a blind eye to what’s happening,” says Forment. “But if you have an effective policy that’s fairly thorough and you’re not turning a blind eye when issues come up, you’re going to have pretty good protection.”