If the human race can send a probe to Mars, surely the Carlyle Group could have zapped Peter Chung.
Remember Chung? He's the self-proclaimed lothario and newly employed financier, who in May used his corporate e-mail to send a bombastic message about his sexual exploits to a handful of friends. E-mail forwarding being what it is, the salacious boast quickly reached his bosses at the Carlyle Group, a tony investment bank that manages $13 billion in assets. They promptly fired Chung, but it was too late to stop worldwide snickering that may have cost Carlyle untold zeroes in new business.
Looking back, Carlyle executives could have saved themselves all this trouble simply by spending a few hundred bucks on any one of the dozens of off-the-shelf, e-mail filtering programs that are available. Such a detector would have sniffed out a hot-button word like "condoms" from Chung's infamous missive and dispassionately relegated the message to oblivion.
No one at Washington, D.C.-based Carlyle is commenting publicly about it, but Monday-morning quarterbacking of the Chung incident isn't as easy as it seems. Not only is e-mail filtering technology highly advanced now, but so are hidden Web cams, satellite-based location-tracking gizmos and other gee-whiz devices for monitoring workers' movements, keystrokes and mouse clicks in offices, factories and fleets. Yet for human resource executives, the most important issue surrounding workplace privacy isn't what's technically feasible, but protecting the company legally and for optimizing its internal culture and relationship with employees. With all those concerns to balance, workplace-monitoring decisions get much murkier.
"There's a trade-off between what employers are going to learn by monitoring and accomplish by filtering and how they may end up offending their employees," says John Rapoport, an attorney and an expert in employment law who runs a Web site called EmployeeStrikesBack.com. "There's a difference between employees working in an office where they're counting diamonds and the people working in the typical office," he says, "but now the same technologies are available to monitor everyone. In the majority of cases, what seems like a good idea could gain a company very little control and information but lose them a lot of trust."
In an era when capable and devoted employees remain a scarce asset, privacy management that keeps worker morale high and builds trust requires discretion. "To take the most responsible path on employee privacy, you've got to obtain the information that you need to know to conduct a normal relationship between employer and employee," says Warren Egnal, head of the Los Angeles-based privacy practice of PR firm Porter Novelli, "but the minimum that you need to keep it safe and secure—just like in the pre-Internet era."
Because it is the Internet era, a strong argument has emerged for employers to take a