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Opening Pandora's (Private) Box

May 1, 1996
Related Topics: Technology and the Law, Policies and Procedures, Featured Article, Technology
Orwellian is an adjective perhaps unique to our times. It conjures images of Big Brother watching our every move, each of us stripped of privacy and, consequently, of dignity. By now, an image, a phrase or a disembodied voice may be all that’s necessary to stir a primal fear.

Our cover this month is certainly Orwellian, and deliberately so. It’s a frightening and even repugnant image, but we selected it because it succeeds in making us squirm. Given the potential that technology now gives us to obliterate personal privacy as it has been defined for millenniums, we should be uncomfortable.

Sam Greengard’s cover story is equally unsettling. Sam shares stories that include a criminal-record mix-up that led to the firing of one man who had done nothing wrong other than to share a similar name to a stranger with a drug conviction on his record, and an employer who saw fit to turn over copies of voicemail implicating an employee in an extra-marital affair to his spouse. Although it would be comforting to dismiss these examples as nothing more than extremism, there isn’t a lot of historical precedent to tell us that given the opportunity, society will take the high road.

Consider, for example, an article in the March 7, 1996, issue of People Management, a business magazine published inLondon. The article explores the future of genetic testing and its role in the workplace. Specifically, it wonders whether people genetically predisposed to certain health conditions might be denied employment. Lest we find that scenario too improbable to give us a sleepless night, it mentions that a woman in the U.S. already has been fired after her employer discovered she carried the gene for Huntington’s chorea. The disease results in mental degeneration. Although the woman fired is in her twenties, is healthy and has only a 50% chance of developing the disorder, her employer decided she was too great a risk.

There’s nothing in Sam’s article to suggest that this woman’s fate is likely to be common any time soon. Still, once we’ve opened the door to say that any and all information is fair game, where do we draw the line? Although we might all agree that employers need information about their employees (particularly in such a litigious society), how much information is enough? And who should have access to it?

These are questions that I suspect it may take a decade to answer. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can afford to put the issue out of our minds until "they" have determined it’s a crisis. Now is the time for all of us in HR to begin thinking about privacy and about how to balance our need to know with employee dignity. And it’s time to start asking the tough questions about the real value of an individual’s worth.

Let’s consider the woman fired because she might develop Huntington’s chorea. If the employer lost five years of good service, was it a wise decision? Thirty years? What if she might have had the idea that saved the company millions or led to the launch of a key product? What if she never develops the disease and works at the employer’s competitor? If an employer can’t answer these questions, does it have a right to know about the gene in the first place?

Reasonable precautions are one thing, but the search for the perfect employee is another. Working to help employees reach their full potential today is one thing, but gambling on the future is another. Can we afford to waste time watching these angels dance on the head of a pin? I think not.

There’s ample room in this growing debate for someone to assert a leadership role. HR has much to gain by doing so.

Personnel Journal, May 1996, Vol. 75, No. 5, p. 4.

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