Social networking sites have led to a new and very public culture of sharing social information – especially among young people. Concerns have been raised that the current generation of 15-25 year olds do not fully comprehend the importance of privacy in human relationships and that many may come to regret the abandon with which they post photographs, opinion and gossip in these semi public domains.
Recently particular concerns have been expressed because there is increasing evidence that some employers have taken to trawling through the social networking pages of potential employees. It is feared that for some their social networking presence will reveal personality traits, opinions and activities that employers will not find attractive.
While I share these widespread concerns about the indiscriminate way personal information is shared today, (and my concerns would include public CCTV cameras, loyalty cards, Oyster cards and other forms of commercial intelligence gathering), I would say that in this case it is the employers we should be taking to task.
Why is no one asking the employers what on earth they think they are doing examining their potential employees intimate personal lives? These employers are effectively undertaking covert intelligence gathering on people who don’t even work for them. In days gone by a potential employer who secretly interviewed your friends, monitored your social life and searched through your diary and photograph albums would quite rightly have been condemned as acting in an intrusive and entirely inappropriate way.
Of course in the past some companies may have undertaken the covert surveillance of employees using private detectives and security agencies but there is little evidence that this was commonplace and was usually linked to trying to uncover evidence of illegal activity. What is happening today is both quantitatively and qualitatively quite different
The legally undertaken social life, including hobbies, political affiliations or trade union activities, of the employee are absolutely no business of an employer. Sure, the employer would love to know all about employees – what they are thinking and saying about the business, if they drink too much, or are rebellious or emotionally volatile or whatever, obviously this is all potentially very valuable information to the employer – BUT IT IS NONE OF THEIR BUSINESS! And just because they would like to know it does not mean they are entitled to know it, nor that they are entitled to mount covert surveillance to acquire the information!
For freedom to have any meaning citizens need to be able to pursue their own social (which includes political) preferences in their own time without damaging their employment opportunities.
To say that a citizen is free to engage in any legal activity in their own time but that as a result of those activities they may not be able to get a job is disingenuous in the extreme: the prospect of long-term unemployment, or permanently reduced earning capacity, as a result of expressing purely private preferences, in their own free time, is clearly a significant restriction of the citizens ability to choose and act freely.
In recent years many employers have used their duty to maximise profits for shareholders as justification for a pernicious and unprecedented intrusion into the private lives of their staff. Constant surveillance of work computers; monitoring of telephone calls and emails; CCTV surveillance of workplaces including canteens and toilet facilities and now the monitoring of staff and potential staff on social networking sites are all becoming increasingly commonplace.
The rationale for this behaviour is that staff are Human Resources for the company to exploit. Apart from the morally unacceptable objectification of individual human beings that this attitude articulates, it also completely misrepresents the relationship between staff and employers.
When a free citizen signs a contract with a company they agree to fulfil certain duties in a specified amount of time; they do not become the fully owned property/resource of the employer and the employer has no right to attempt to determine or control the legal activities of the employee outside of the contracted hours.
Even within the working day is it reasonable of employers to attempt to monitor and direct employees 100% of the time? During a working day are employees entitled to absolutely no private time at all? Is it morally acceptable to treat living human beings as if they were machines?
To be free, citizens of a democratic society not only have to be protected from oppression by the state, they also have to be protected from oppression by private businesses and corporations.
In this post credit crunch era businesses and corporations also have to accept the moral restrictions on their duty to maximise. Businesses & corporations are at least equal to government in their impact on the lives of their employees, customers and society at large. They have to come (or be made) to understand that like all of us they are not free to do anything to achieve their objectives, and that they have to treat their staff first and foremost as fellow human beings, not simply as resources to be monitored, controlled and exploited.
I Am Not A Number
Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society