Is Employee 'Lifestyle Monitoring' an Invasion of Privacy?

Last Updated Aug 13, 2009 11:25 AM EDT

Chances are that at some point in your professional life, you've been the subject of a background check. It's de rigeur in certain professions, and many employers have hopped on that bandwagon to make sure their new hires don't have a shady or criminal history.

I've had to undergo a few myself, and while I can't say I'm thrilled to have people poking and prodding into my past, I understand the need. Companies need to know what they're getting into and protect themselves from bad hiring risks.

But what if the screening wasn't limited to the pre-hiring process? What if your employer was still looking over your shoulder at your private life?

According to The Buffalo News, lifestyle-monitoring services are the new trend in corporate security. Samantha Maziarz Christmann says employers look for drug references on Facebook, lapses in a worker's mortgage payments, or evidence that a manager is frequenting the local casino.

Companies that offer such services say they're just providing an early-warning system for employers. For example, a sudden and unusual increase in trips to the casino might mean a bank teller could be tempted to take a little extra cash home. Or talking about a drug- or alcohol-fueled binge on Facebook might indicate an addiction -- and point to potential misconduct that could result in embarrassment to (or legal action against) the company.

Whoa.

This is a new extreme and I think it's ridiculous. Employers are already keeping tabs on workers' computer use and Internet habits, even going to such lengths as monitoring keystrokes to access private passwords (an effort, I should note, that is now part of a California lawsuit). And that's to a large extent legit. What I do during work hours, and with company-owned equipment, is rightly an employer's business.

But my own time should be my own time. Poking around my social-media preferences? Vetting my credit-card spending? Observing my vacation habits? Nope. To me, that's crossing a line.

Will an employer conclude that because I lost a tennis tournament over the weekend that I'll be less productive on Monday? Or that my recent shoe-shopping binge indicates a dangerous spending compulsion that will bankrupt me and force me to embezzle from the company?

I think that's a crazy, slippery, Big Brother slope that's an outright invasion of privacy. What do you think?


(image by Rene Ehrhardt via Flickr, CC 2.0)

  • CC Holland

    CC Holland is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and a number of national magazines. Online, she was a columnist for AnchorDesk.com and writes regularly for Law.com and BNET. On the other side of the journalism desk, she's been a managing editor for ZDNet, CNet, and KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, where she earned an APTRA Best News Web Site award.