Sunday, April 17, 2011

Some Wisconsin State Workers Are Told Big Brother Is Scanning Them Online, 24/7

Employees at one state agency should think twice before chatting away on their blogs, Facebook pages and other forms of social networking because the boss is watching - - even on your off time

Wyman Winston, the Executive Director at the Wisconsin Housing Economic Development Authority, (WHEDA, or "the Authority"), sent employees a "Dear Colleagues" memo on March 2nd, at 4:57 PM, about WHEDA's two-page "Social Media and Communications Policy."

The memo does not explicitly say whether it's a new policy, but does not reference an earlier one.

The policy is full of common sense tips and guidelines about how and why social media formats and sites should be respectfully and professionally used to further the agency mission.

But as early as the third paragraph, Winston lets employees know that Big Brother is watching, even during off-work hours "at any time and for any reason" with wide latitude about topics.

"All electronic communications and postings via social media channels that discuss the Authority or Authority-related matters will be subject to monitoring or search by WHEDA at any time and for any reason, regardless of whether created during or outside work time."
The policy warns employees not to post information that violates agency confidentiality requirements, or could be construed as "offensive or harassing" regarding a person's racial, sexual orientation, religion, gender, age and "other characteristics protected by law."

Well enough.

But the next section makes clear that monitored and forbidden postings are very broadly defined, with wiggle room about relevancy on management's side:
When communicating or posting online about WHEDA or Authority-related matters it is unacceptable to communicate or post information that defames WHEDA, its employees or customers or casts WHEDA in a negative light. While your activities outside of work are generally your business, public comments that negatively affect the Authority, its employees or customers will not be tolerated.
At the end, after more prohibitions and suggestions, such as "Don't pick fights"...don't alter previous posts without indicating that you have done so...Respect your audience and your coworkers...Be thoughtful about how you present yourself in online social networks..."[the bold facing is WHEDA's] the policy reinforces the hammer:
All electronic communications and postings via social media channels that discuss the Authority or Authority-related matters will be subject to monitoring and/or search by WHEDA at any time and for any reason, regardless of whether created during or outside work time.  When online networking affects an employee's job performance, the performance of others or the Authority's business interests, the Authority will respond as necessary, regardless of whether the information was posted during or outside of work. Therefore, employees may not maintain an expectation of privacy with respect to public, online communications involving the Authority or Authority-related matters.

Violation of this policy may result in discipline up to and including termination of employment.
Now I'm not a lawyer, but I would think that free-speech protections in the State and US  constitutions, the National Labor Relations Act and whistle-blower statutes would limit the out-of-office, off-working time reach in the policy.

A cursory Internet search yields one legal discussion that mentions Wisconsin's strengths in these areas.

More tomorrow.


John said...

I'd heard blogger Kevin Fischer (he of "Hey Cheesecake breath" fame) was dismissed by his former boss, state senator Lazich, and took a position at WHEDA.


Think7generations said...

Ironic that Winston (Smith) is the main character in 1984. He is forced to work for the Ministry of Truth dispensing lies. In real life, it seems that our Winston is engaged in a a bit of "big brother" action.

John P said...

Would these posting be done on a State computer or on the employees personal computer? If the posting would be done on a personal computer when the employee is not at work or during non work hours, then the State should have no problem with it. Otherwise it is wrong.

By the way, you would be against, putting government montoring devices in cars to track milage or in home thermostats to monitor temperatures, correct?

Eileen Troemel said...

Actually this isn't an uncommon practice in both public and private sectors. If you are at work - do work things and don't put your work down. If you are at home - do home things and embrace your free speech.

Remember actions have consequences. However, that doesn't mean an action shouldn't be taken - just that we should be aware of the consequences.

Anonymous said...

As a former state worker (retired, thank God!)I'd just like to advise that we were always told our work communications were being monitored, but obviously the aim here is to monitor ALL communications. I would strongly suggest that those who are working toward the removal of the present leadership have TWO Facebook and/or Twitter and or/ whatever accounts, and use one strictly for work related social networking and the other STRICTLY for off work and at home use.
I don't think they can do anything about the personal account unless it defames WHEDA.

Anonymous said...

I had a boss that was looking through my garbage. I put a note at the bottom of the garbage asking if she'd found anything.

Why should bosses be monitoring what people say on their own time. I have one thing to say to a boss that does that--and it would be considered threatening--as in leave me alone or I will rip your eyes out and eat them.

James Rowen said...

As I said in the posting, my concern is the off-hours scrutiny of use of "All" electronic media and about "Authority-related matters." Does that mean a commentary on the economy? Economic development philosophy? The political uproar in Madison?

People are going to feel intimidated.

nancy sixel said...

I take it that WHEDA has clients, who have certain confidentiality rights. There's no question that a breach of that confidentiality -- on or off work hours or equipment -- is job related. And defamation of your employer -- again, whether on or off the job -- is certainly grounds for discipline. Harassing or discriminatory remarks about your employer or clients, in an agency that serves a diverse population, would indicate a lack of judgment. I don't have a problem with this. A private employer requires as much; it's more difficult, perhaps, to maintain discipline and courtesy when your boss (govenor) is maligning you in public. Whistleblower law protects people claiming wrongdoing by the employer through legitimate channels. These suggestions seem to be all related to WHEDA and the people it serves -- legitimate and reasonable requests, I think. Professionalism and loyalty to your clients?

nancy sixel said...

And "Authority-related matters" will probably be interpreted by courts as rather more specific than economic theory or state budget matters or union rights. There's enough language in the statement as a whole to convince me that their intention is to regulate specific agency affairs. I think, in fact, they might be liable to their clients if they didn't have such a policy and an employee posted damaging or discriminatory remarks. Picturing yourself as the client might help to understand it.

Anonymous said...

My company has a similiar policy buried in our disclosure/ethics policy which all employees must verify annually that they have read, agree to and understand as a condition of continued employement.

And yes,I work in the private sector.

Eileen Troemel said...

Some of it is an intimidation technique to keep employees in line. Some of it is to protect the reputation of the company or department. Most of it is wrong. That doens't mean they aren't going to do it. This is why you have to be aware of what you are saying and the onsequences it could bring.

Sociology: Applied said...

I don't see what all the hurrr durr is about. These policies aren't anything new, they are common sense. You find other ways to make your point than ranting on social media outlets that are directly tied to your identity. DARPA has been archiving our transmissions on the internet for at least a decade. Everything you post is tied to your IP address unless you use a proxy, and your information and search habits can be used to incriminate you. In regards to morale, I have to agree, public employees shouldn't bash the institution they work for on social media, this damages morale. They should blow the whistle on unfair practices in an upstanding way and follow whatever channels they can- or use the press, damaged as it is.