Is Your Company Using Employee Data Ethically?


Potter Stewart, justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, once said, “Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have the right to do and what is right to do.” Associate Justice Stewart probably didn’t know how new data technologies would soon begin to blur those boundaries.

With the emergence of new information technologies, corporations can now amass and analyze unprecedented volumes of unstructured data — the data created by humans, such as the text contained in company documents, email, instant messaging, and social media. Collecting this data was originally driven by the obligation to produce evidence for litigation, to preserve business records, and to respond to regulators’ demands for information, but it has now dawned on corporations that all of that data can open up new vistas of management capabilities, such as visualizing employee interactions, mapping domain expertise, replaying past events, tracking employee sentiment, and providing insights into all human activity across the organization.

These capabilities are creating much excitement, angst, and debate. While the benefits are clearly far-reaching and potentially game changing, there are ethical questions to consider. When companies collect all the data their employees generate, there’s always the risk that employee privacy will be sacrificed for profit.

Consider the following ways that companies are using employee data:

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