Privacy in the workplace got a hell of a lot more complex when computers burst ontp the mainstream.
Big Brother-style paranoia has long been touted since desktops and laptops and smartphones and tablets being have been supplied to staff by their employers. And some of it is very real. Trouble is, the rights of businesses to control how employees use these devices is a foggy grey area that can really disturb office morale if conflict arises due to a lack of clarity or understanding.
Laws are in place—such as recognizing that computers are tools for jobs and remain company property—but they're far from comprehensive and, really, who wants to start citing the lawbook when dealing with a Facebook addict in his cubicle?
The smart (though seldom simple) solution is through policies. Make them clear, but make them comprehensive. Employees expect a reasonable amount of privacy. Sounds easy… but think on that for a minute. It's actually incredibly ambiguous and varies by each individual. How can this be defined? Suddenly, you've got a nightmare on your hands.
The quickest way out is by means of an iron-fist policy, but with upcoming generations demanding freedom and flexibility and social networking occurring everywhere and at all times, this method is totally antiquated and will likely prove self-destructive fast. In fact, recent history suggests that judges, arbitrators, and privacy commissioners don't always uphold heavy-handed computer policies, deeming them unfair to staff. And be wary of "snooping" a worker's information on a work device; while often legal, this can create dramatic turbulence in the workplace if the incident isn't completely isolated. Balance is the key here.
The best time to make clear the rules of privacy and ownership are when you hand the person a work device. Give it to them alongside the related policies and verbally explain the basics, asking them if they understand and if they have any questions.
Of course, it's never so one-dimensional. Peculiar situations are apt to arise and policies will need to be expanded and tweaked regularly as the company and employees adapt to each other's shifting needs and the rapidly changing technology that surrounds us. And each and every company will need a slightly different policy for one reason or another—so while looking at others' for inspiration or ideas is encouraged, a lazy carbon copy is a shooting yourself in the foot. And always speak the managers of a company whose policies you may be considering implementing. Ask them if what works, what doesn't and why.
Ultimately, even with policies and laws and office memos, a business has to place a certain level of trust in its employees to operate smoothly. Because if it can't trust its staff, it has more problems than just work device privacy.