Spying, Who Me?

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With all the noise about the Hewlett-Packard board room scandal, resulting in the removal of their Chairman, Patricia Dunn, I wonder if it is making managers thinking about the spying they do on their own employees.

HP's Patricia Dunn
Patricia Dunn

Let’s be clear, I think what Dunn did was wrong. She got upset at leaks around the removal of Carly Fiorina as CEO, and decided to hire a private investigator to find out who was talking to the press. The PI used “pretexting” (pretending to be an authorized person) to get access to a wide range of phone records. They looked at not only the board, but also reporters from BusinessWeek among other media outlets.

It’s not clear at this point whether this was a case of an overzealous PI, simply wanting to please a client, or an overzealous client pressuring a PI to “get me an answer, dammit”. Not to pre-judge, but from everything I hear about Ms. Dunn, I’m leaning to the latter.

Whichever it turns out to be, the local district attorney has said they they are still deciding whether to file charges. Ouch…

But this is an extreme case, and while I’m sure there are others many worse, I wonder how many cases like this there are routinely happening on a day-to-day basis. I believe that spying on employees in one form or another has grown from being something you might consider doing in the case of a crisis to being simply a matter of daily life for some executives.

It doesn’t help that technology now makes this easy, from email logs to text messages to phone records. This is, in fact, one place where the crime dramas on TV don’t exaggerate. I know from both personal experience and technical knowledge that getting more detail about your electronic life than you ever dreamed imaginable is incredibly easy. Again, no amount of hype can overstate the amount of data about you that lives on some server somewhere. So the info is there, ripe for the picking.

Often this is cloaked under the “trust, but verify” mindset.

I’ve worked with, around, and for some very driven people. And I know that it takes remarkably little to get these people to overreact and want to poke and pry into almost any one’s life, at scary depths. I’ve been in the position to tell these people “no”, or at least “you can’t be serious” more than a few times. And others have told me stories that still keep me up at night about executives demanding (and almost getting) bank records, trailing people, even digging in their trash. For their own employees for gosh sakes. It’s really just sick.

Often this is cloaked under the “trust, but verify” mindset. They think: “Sure I trust the people around me, but what harm is there in checking to make sure that trust is well placed?” The harm is that it’s offensive, degrading, and often illegal. It is not trust when you don’t trust the other person enough to believe them in the first place. It is a lie to think that you trust someone and then feel like you have to check up on them. If you don’t trust them, tell them your concerns. If you do trust them, really trust them.

This entire discussion is well above and beyond the question of whether or not you should look through the company phone or internet records to see what your people are doing. That’s a whole different kettle of fish, and one for another time. After all there may be legitimate performance or legal reasons to do that. And this also leaves out the complete question of external spying for corporate advantage — there definitely isn’t enough time for that topic.

If the activity is illegal let the police handle it, and if it’s not, find another way to solve the problem.

But, please, please, if you find yourself or a peer thinking about spying (something that would typically involve a private investigator) on someone in your company, for any reason at all, stop them or call the cops. If the activity is illegal let the police handle it, and if it’s not, find another way to solve the problem.

In the case of HP, I can’t help but thinking that if Dunn had simply sat down and had a 1-on-1 conversation with each of the board members, she wouldn’t have found her disgruntled one in a heartbeat. And saved her job, her reputation, and the “HP Way”.