Many compelling reasons exist for protecting employee confidentiality, starting with the need to guard against the unauthorized disclosure of proprietary information. Employers can be held accountable for their employees leaking details of a former employee's job or health information. Companies have struggled to deal with the challenges of personal web logs and social networking sites, where employees may post statements that put employers or colleagues in a negative light. Addressing these scenarios requires writing clearly defined policies to deal with them.
Unauthorized leaks of confidential information can destroy a company's competitive edge and its reputation, as well as expose its owners to serious financial and legal harm. A survey of 1,400 intelligence technology professionals posted on the i-sight.com website suggests that such practices are more widespread than most employers realize. Sixty-seven percent of the professionals surveyed admitted to accessing information that was irrelevant to their jobs. An additional 41 percent acknowledged abusing administrative passwords to gain access to such information.
One of the most important responsibilities for any company is safeguarding information during the interviewing process. Only hiring supervisors or human resources managers should check details of previous employers to avoid accidentally disclosing such information, according to a summary posted on the Business Management Daily website. Disclosing medical information also opens companies up to lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act's confidentiality provision and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which obliges employers to secure such personal data.
Postings on private Web logs, or blogs, have raised workplace confidentiality debates to new heights. Such postings often mean dismissal -- as Mark Jen learned in criticizing his employer, Google, the New York Times reported in April 2005. Barring membership in a union, or some sort of contractual relationship, employee blog postings do not enjoy ironclad free speech protections, the newspaper reported. For this reason, advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation advise employees to blog anonymously, because you cannot know who is reading.
As social media websites like Facebook grow more pervasive, employers need to develop policies for dealing with them, says employment lawyer Melinda J. Caterine in a column for The Portland Press Herald. Employee postings on such sites may reveal sentiments at odds with a company's core values. However, such sites may also contain information about protected categories like a prospective employee or current employee's age, disability or religion, Caterine says. Accessing such information can undermine an employer's defense against a failure-to-hire claim.