Information Privacy part 5 of 5 - by John Sumser - HRExaminer

Being creepy is not always against the law. In the business of lead generation, some companies prefer creepiness.

Information Privacy 5: Futures and Issues in HR

For months now, I’ve been being followed around by an ad from Replicon. Ever since I reviewed their iPad like time clock, the add pops up on a periodic basis. This process, called retargeting, feels intrusive but is far from illegal.

Just like creepy guys can stand across the street from your house looking creepy with little fear of harassment; creepy advertisers can follow you around without actually invading your privacy. That’s one of the interesting things about privacy. Being creepy is not always against the law. In the business of lead generation, some companies prefer creepiness.

We are entering a lawless time. Technology moves faster than the law and is gaining speed. As a result, the first thing to change will be the role of lawyers.

Today, great corporate lawyers (particularly the employment types) make their bread by helping their clients maintain a very conservative posture. If you want confirmation that something is a bad idea, just ask a lawyer. In the 20th Century, this made enormous sense. The lawyer’s job was to reduce or eliminate risk. One never asked a lawyer to help with innovation.


Today, lawyers have to start helping their clients take advisable risks. Is retargeting, creepy as it is, a good way to get employees to read the new policy all the way through? Is it legal? What’s the risk of implementing the new tool?

By the time legislators even partially understand retargeting, it will have been replaced by a better, more effective approach. The lawyer’s job will be to advise about the likelihood that this new idea will cause problems down the road. Lawyers will have to rapidly shift from operating as defensive players and move to a more offensive role. Technology, particularly on the issue of privacy, forces attorneys to become strategic.

Not all of them are up to the task.

There’s almost no question that the HR Organization. will become the operator of the company privacy department. Already, the most significant privacy related issues are in the hands of the HR team. Medical data, personnel records, background investigations, succession plans, compensation data, employee financial info are all currently under the purview of HR. Privacy is such a bugaboo that the other folks will be happy to dump the problem in HR’s lap.

Who else would you give it to, IT?

Meanwhile, with sensors stuck on every imaginable object, the company’s ability to understand and measure employee performance is going to take on whole new layers of meaning. Just like Target was able to “know” that a customer was pregnant, HR will be able to put 2 and 2 together on a variety of subjects. Large scale data mining will begin to show near-magical correlations between conditions and productivity.

While the line departments are learning how to navigate Big Data in their operations, the HR Big Data problem is all about people and what they think and do. The line between work and life is going to continue to blur as vendors bombard employers with new ways to harness the intelligence embedded in social media.

Until we get a solid handle on the question, tools that are no more than always-on popularity contests are going to try to find their way into the business’s measurement of its worth. The questionable practice of harnessing peer pressure to develop performance appraisals will have a short and damaging existence. For a while, everyone will have the opportunity to deliver ‘feedback’ to everyone.

Inside the firewall, the stunning scope of LinkedIn’s knowledge of your human capital supply chain and the way it is networked will become part of the scenery. As HR accepts responsibility for managing the health of the network that is the company, it will make smarter decisions and backstop even smarter things. Understanding how communication and influence flow through the organization will change the face of management forever.

It’s going to feel intrusive.

Work is the opposite of privacy.

In the recent case of an employer asking for a candidate’s Facebook password during an interview, no privacy laws were broken. While the candidate certainly had the right to refuse, the employer had the right to ask. The workplace is not particularly privacy friendly. Employers may engage in all sorts of behavior that feels really intrusive (urine tests, personality assessments) but does not violate privacy laws. Employees will be spending the next decade or so wrestling with the difference between privacy and privacy laws. Great employers will be working hard to manage their expectations.

There are a lot of really smart questions to ask. There are going to be a ton of dumb experiments along the way. In the next 18 months, HR leaders will be flooded with offers to embed tools that allow and encourage employees to rate each other, give badges, express sentiment, network, collaborate and communicate. Usually rooted in mobile-social media mindsets, these tools will promote an always-on, real-time view of work. In the end, this is an improvement over static performance appraisal.

Here are the 7 issues that will be top of mind in HR on the privacy front over the coming months and years:

  • The use of social technology in performance management
    Besides actual output, things like state of mind, social activity, workplace interactions and even weather impact employee performance. A host of solutions will emerge that dig deeper into aspects of the employee’s existence that didn’t used to be monitored. HR Departments will become the experts in legal issues and expectations management as both employees and managers come to grips with the new intrusions.
  • The internal use of social technology systems for status, communications and collaboration
    The way that technology enters organizations is driven more by what can be done than by what ought to be done. Already, companies are using Twitter to deploy internal status systems. Since social technology usually comes in the front door, there are a ton of jury-rigged projects that are being hard wired into the infrastructure. Somehow, HR has to stay on top of the projects and their implications for internal mobility, compensation, and sound employment practices.
  • Managing the health of the network that is the organization
    The degree to which LinkedIn understands who is connected to whom (on a professional basis) is becoming critical organizational knowledge. The social technology providers may well have a better understanding than you do about who is and isn’t redundant, for example. While monitoring interactions around critical network nodes (both inside and outside the firewall) may seem intrusive, the organization needs to understand the welfare of these critical connections.
  • Drawing the line between at-work and non-at-work surveillance.
    You’re at a party on the weekend following a trade show. You tweet about what an idiot the guy at one of your partners is. The boss, who is following your tweets from home DMs you to cool it. Is that in bounds or out of bounds. People are going to do stupid things in this arena for years to come. It will be HR’s job to help the players understand the boundaries.
  • Buying the best hours
    In the olden days (back in the 20th Century), work began at 8 and ended at 5. Everyone came at the same time because communication could only happen in the office. This way of working overlooked the fact that some people do their best work outside of regular hours. Why should a company be limited to buying an employee’s time during a set window. Instead, monitoring (including metabolism and environmental data) will be used to by the best 8 hours from an employee.
  • Tracking and analyzing communications
    Social network analysis, rooted in a view of internal communications, takes on a whole new cast when you add social technologies and collaborative tools into the mix. Communications meta data will supplement the health of the network diagnostics that are coming in from outside. Understanding the real content flow in the organization is the key to unlocking big productivity gains.
  • Combining and correlating data
    Soon, the HR Analyst will be a key slot. Responsible for dashboards, data integration, analytics and novel insight, the statisticians in the HR Department will rapidly be a part of the decision making team. This is where Moneyball really meets HR.

It will be decades before privacy regulations catch up with the reality inside the organization. As a result, the HR team will constantly be treading the line between what works, pragmatically, and the workforce’s sense that things have gone too far. If the team is able to utilize lawyers who don’t spend time in CYA maneuvers, they can really advance the organization’s agenda. In the coming year’s HR will have to make decisions well ahead of the law.

That will take some retraining.

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