Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Privacy in the Workplace

To what degree is it morally and/or legally justifiable for corporations to access private, personal information about their stakeholders and/or share that information with others? 

First of all, the concept of "information" is epistemologically complex. The distinction between "public information" and "private information" is deeply rooted in Adam Smith's original distinction between "property" and "information." If there is a such thing as "private property," then why not "private information?" In what sense do individuals "own" information pertaining to their "private lives?" If there is a "right to privacy" is it a moral right or legal right? If there is a legal or moral right to privacy, then is that right a Positive Right or a Negative Right?  

In business ethics, privacy is usually approached via two competing theories of management: Stockholder Theory and Stakeholder Theory. 

Stockholder Theorists argue that all "rights" are negative moral rights. Corporations are cooperative enterprises comprised of various stakeholder groups who voluntarily cooperate in pursuit of their own individual and/or personal and collective interests. Those stakeholder groups include: stockholders, employees, consumers, suppliers, financiers, and local communities. Corporations thrive, survive, or go bankrupt based on the degree to which corporations satisfy the interests of those competing groups. For Stockholder Theorists, the Liberty Principle is fundamental; that is the various groups must have freedom to enter and/or exit from any given corporation. Thus, the CEO (or owner) of any corporation is bound by a moral agreement or contract that binds the various stakeholder groups. If any one stakeholder group is dissatisfied with that agreement they can refuse to sign that contract. If enough stakeholders from any one group refuse, the corporation may bankrupt. Therefore, on the issue of privacy, Stockholder Theorists argue that contracts must contain clear statements concerning what kind of information is required out of each stakeholder group, how that information will be gathered, and who will have access to that information. In short, corporations that unnecessarily pry into the private lives of their employees and/or consumers will pay the price in the free market.  

Stakeholder Theorists argue that contractual moral agreements are insufficient guarantors of the right to privacy (or any other right!). They tend to support government regulations that limit what kinds of information can be collected by corporations, what corporations can do with that information, and who can have access to that information.  

Corporations can secure information about stakeholder groups in many different ways. The most common source of information procurement is via surveillance: that is by observing the behavior of the various stakeholder groups. Throughout most corporate history, surveillance entailed direct observation by an owner or a designated overseer. In recent years, surveillance has been expanded via technologies such as video cameras, computers, and a variety of tests. Today most corporations use technology to observe the behavior of their employees and consumers. Once this information is gathered, then ethicists ask: "What is to be done with that information?" and "Who ought to have access to that information?"

For Stockholder Theorists the main ethical issues are utilitarian: "Do the costs for of surveillance outweigh the benefits?"  Some surveillance technologies are very expensive to purchase from sellers. Some technologies are inaccurate and therefore yield false or misleading information. According to Stockholder Theory it's up to the stockholders to decide whether the benefits of any surveillance technology outweigh the costs.  

Drug tests are both notoriously inaccurate and expensive. Many laboratories that process the tests employ underpaid incompetent workers. And of course, many employers, no doubt, alienate a lot of good workers by asking them to submit to drugs tests or honesty tests.

The overall utility of drug testing is questionable from many perspectives.  Highly accurate drug tests, for example, may detect lingering quantities of illegal drugs, that do not (in fact) affect work performance. It’s one thing to smoke a joint just before flying a passenger plane and another thing to smoke a joint a week before takeoff. Doe employers really have a moral right to monitor employees behavior after work, that does not affect their productivity? Is it really my employers business if I choose to smoke a joint on my day off? There may also be a big difference between a rock star smoking joint before a performance and pilot smoking a joint before flying. But, unfortunately, due to the ongoing drug war, it is illegal for scientists to conduct clinical trials that might determine whether smoking pot really impairs one’s ability to fly a plane. What would happen if research shows that pot smoking is (in fact) performance enhancing, and enhances one’s ability to fly a plane? Could airlines justifiably require all airplane pilots to smoke pot?

Another privacy issue questions whether corporations have a duty to protect private information. When personal information on employees and/or consumers is stored on computers, the question arises "who owns that information" and "who ought to have access to that information?" How secure must that information be kept? How much should corporations invest in protecting the security of information on their employees and consumers?

The use of social media in the workplace is also problematic in the workplace. Many employees expend time at work checking their private, non-work-related e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. Hence, corporations end up paying for wasted time. From a moral or legal perspective, what can a company do to minimize this behavior? Should corporations hire employees or hire a corporation to monitor employee computer use? But who will monitor the monitors? How much should a company pay those monitors? Is it easier to justify testing one class of workers rather than another? For example, should we test airline pilots, physicians, and college professors to the same degree? If so, what kinds of tests?

1. Do employers have a moral right to access private information of their employees or consumers? If so, under what conditions might that access be justified?

2. If your employer discovers via a required physical that you have a serious, contagious disease such as AIDS, does your employer have a moral duty to tell your wife, spouse, or children?

3. If your employer fires you for unauthorized use of your computer at work, does that employer have a duty to inform future employers of that transgression? 

4. What do you think about employers requiring each of the following tests: honesty tests, IQ tests, or AIDS tests?

5. Discuss the use of performance enhancing drugs (steroids) and illegal recreational drugs (pot) in Major League Baseball and The National Football League. What are the privacy implications? 

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