Hi George! Since learning of the White House’s electronic surveillance program, I’m adding a little greeting to the President in all my e-mails, phone calls, and voice-mails. After all, it must get tiresome combing through my correspondence with my brother on up-to-date dry-walling techniques, while searching for a coded message to Al Qaeda. And what did the National Security Agency make of the latest batch of baby pictures e-mailed by my nephew in Oklahoma?
But it isn’t just the big snoop at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that you have to worry about these days. Chances are that your employer has already been monitoring you—not for ties to terrorist organizations, but for signs of insubordination, drug use, mental illness, or any other symptom of a “bad attitude.” Everyone claims to crave privacy: Hence, we generally close the door when we use the bathroom and lower the shades at night. But we surrender all rights to privacy when we go to work.
The most recent survey I can find, from 2001, shows 78 percent of employers monitoring their employees in one way or another. Internet use is the most common target of snooping bosses, often including web-surfing done on lunch and other breaks. Is it anybody’s business if you want to spend your personal time in SimCity or on Match.com? And what if you’re looking for help with a problem you really don’t want the boss to know about—depression, drinking, or a self-destructive teenage child?
E-mails aren’t exactly private either, and I’ve read of some employers using programs that allow them to view even deleted words. Suppose you refer to the branch manager as a “son of a bitch,” then think better of it and change that to a “person with an innovative leadership style.” Too late, he’s already seen your first assessment.
The boss is also entitled to search your purse or backpack, presumably for stolen goods. How many purloined staplers or paper clips do they find? I don’t know, but I’ve heard of purse searches being used to detect union literature, too.
And what about the widespread practice of drug testing, which constitutes a kind of chemical search? All right, no one should show up at work in a state of chemical impairment, but the only drug residue they’re likely to find is that of marijuana, which—unlike cocaine, heroin, and meth—can linger in the bloodstream for weeks. Should that joint you indulged in on a Saturday night really be grounds for dismissal?
Personality tests can be overly intrusive too. When I was working on Nickel and Dimed, one employer—a housecleaning service—administered a test asking whether I was subject to moods of self-pity. Hey, if you’re applying for a job paying $6 and change an hour, you have a right to a little self-pity. Even the ubiquitous Myers-Briggs test, which seems to be designed to weed out the introverts, raised my hackles. If I’m too shy to interact with my fellow humans, you’ll find that out in an interview—so leave my “personality” alone.
Most of us wouldn’t undress in front of the boss or invite him or her home for a tour of the medicine cabinets, so why do we put up with these routine invasions of our privacy? For one thing, in most cases, they are entirely legal. State laws govern workplace rights, and they generally rule that you have none.
In the case of the Snoop in Chief, there is one theoretical recourse: He can be impeached. Unfortunately, there is no way, as of yet, to impeach a boss or supervisor. We’ll have to change those laws, state by state, or force Congress—or would it be the Supreme Court?—to rule that basic civil rights apply to workers, too.
Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive. Her latest book is “Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream.” Her website is www.barbaraehrenreich.com.