Commentary

Your Boss and Your BlackBerry

By Timothy B. Lee
This article appeared in the New York Times on December 21, 2009.

There’s never been a better time to be an American worker. The American economy is steadily replacing back-breaking farm labor and tedious factory work with comfortable white-collar jobs. Among the many benefits of working in a modern office is that white-collar employers frequently turn a blind eye to employees engaging in personal activities “on the clock.” Many office workers make personal calls on their office phones and send personal e-mails from their office computers.

Permissive workplace policies are an important way to attract and retrain the best workers. They are also one side of a quid pro quo: the same employee who spends an afternoon ordering Christmas presents on Amazon.com may be expected to take time away from his family to deal with a weekend emergency at work.

As the line between company and personal communications blurs, employees are understandably worried about their privacy. But trying to regulate employer policies on the use of company-owned equipment is the wrong approach.

As we see in the City of Ontario v. Quon [pdf] case, there’s a real danger of the courts getting bogged down in arguments about the minutia of internal corporate policies — both official and tacit. The courts have more important things to do than parse the fine print of employee handbooks.

Employers should recognize that micromanaging their employees is counterproductive.”

Fortunately, well over 80 percent of Americans have personal cellphones. And employees who make calls or send text messages using these devices enjoy the full protection of federal electronic privacy laws. So employees who are worried about employer snooping can protect themselves by using their personal cellphones for sensitive personal communications.

For their part, employers should recognize that snooping on and micromanaging their employees is counterproductive. The best workers will leave, and the rest will be less willing to put in extra hours when the company needs them most. Treating your workers with respect isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s also good for the bottom line.

Timothy B. Lee is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and a member of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University. He blogs at the Bottom-Up.