Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Nov 17, 2005

Free Speech on the Job

Instructor, Caroline Bender

Ordinarily, you might expect me to approach this topic in the tone of "you should be above board" and "don't put anything in email you can't answer for..." and generally that is Miss Bender's attitude. But I am a little annoyed with the Company these days, and I have decided to take a more educational (and practical) approach instead, and offer tips for beating the system.

Years ago, when the Law began supporting the Company on the topic of email privacy and network ownership, we all got a little worried that we were being watched. This website alone may be grounds for my dismissal; not carefully hiding my identity and that of the Company would be professional suicide. But in those days I used to say that the volume of email alone -- not to mention the brick-hard TEDIUM of its contents -- ought to prevent any employer from bothering to skim it. And I was secure in that belief.

Since then, a few things have happened -- roughly in this order. And they may be happening to you right now.

The Boss' job became more boring than yours
And... she is under some pressure to protect the Company and herself. There is so little supervisory time, no one has been trained for their job, and she can't always be sure she knows how you're representing the department. (and she might be a little crazy )

Monitoring your activity allows her to know what you're up to -- and she doesn't have to apologize when caught! In fact, if you suspect you are being monitored, you are a fool to confront her. What you must do instead is take preventative action.

On-Line Employee Suggestion boards
Get real. Those aren't anonymous. But when they are presented by the Company as if they are, the Boss has to work harder to confront you about whatever you submit. This takes time away from the other nefarious snooping they are up to.

Countermeasure ~ Disguise your handwriting.
By this, I mean learn what your verbal tells are. Avoid your common catch-phrases and conversational style; throw around regionalisms that don't match your region. For example, Americans might use "whilst" or "colour." The trick is to be completely inconsistent, post-to-post, and not to repeat in person a clever turn of phrase you have used on the board. Sometimes, you might post something you don't even care about, just to start a goose chase.

Job board surfing
True story: Head of HR calls the Middle Manager and says "Junior Employee's resume is posted on BigPhat Job Board. Are you going to talk to her?" The Company enjoys passing the time searching job boards for their name (or, quite frankly, your name) to see who has posted a resume.

Countermeasure ~ Mask your identity
Most job boards will allow you to mark your resume "confidential," which masks your name and address. Make sure to also remove your name from the resume itself. No headers, footers, fancy letterhead, etc. Don't worry that your resume doesn't have your name on it. It's also in plain text and marginless.

Same idea on a wider scale. Googling web groups is an especially interesting way to find out what you're doing on company time. And now search engines include Blogsearching, where the Company can find out what you are posting about them.

Countermeasure ~ Google yourself often.
See what's out there. You can't dispose of it, but you are at least aware. In addition, if it is something obscure ("Rita Renteria wins karate final," ) and the Boss mentions it... you have a good idea how she came across it.

Always post to web groups using a personal email address, preferably one that doesn't reveal your name. If you have an unusual name, misspell it periodically, when it really doesn't matter (like on eBay).

Blog carefully. You know Bender is not my real name, and I would not name my company. If you actually read these entries with any consistency, you'll start to identify the people, places, and events behind all these pseudonyms. But the Company is not reading...it is searching and spot-checking. If you want to see how this works, blogsearch your company (or any company) and see what comes back. Then avoid it.

IP lookup
Here was one that shocked even me. In an anonymous survey, Businesswoman includes a quotation to enforce her point. The Company narc googles the quotation, then determines whether a company-owned IP had visited that site. But, as mentioned above, the Company doesn't confront the commenter; they just tuck the info away into their
file of known subversives.

Countermeasure ~ deflect and distract
I'd like to tell you not to surf at work, but 8 hours is a very long time to watch your screensaver. So rather than not surf, I say surf a LOT. Surf to a hundred sites of your competitors, search for job-related words in groups, click on every on-line version of your industry's trade magazines. This is the equivalent of sneaking the condom box in with the cartful of groceries. "I probably was there. I'm all over the web. Where else was I that day?"

This can also work for confusing Ironmail, which looks for patterns and percentages. Volume can confuse the statistics.

IronMail (and its ilk)
The people who promise you "inbound protection" (oh my) also throw around the phrase "protect against outbound policy and compliance violations." This means filtering. And to see an IronMail demo in action is to get your head spinning about the kinds of filters and measurements you might run if you wanted to spy on goldbricking employees such as yourself.

Volume and tedium are no longer a problem, as the Company may now search by keywords, word roots, fuzzy words...file types, file size...recipient domains. They can delete, archive, quarantine, and best of all report. And I do love a compelling report. Who at our company sends the most mail? The largest mail? Who receives mail from our competitor? And what is that mail exactly? We should read it!

All perfectly legal. You are a guest in their home.

Countermeasure ~ cryptology
If you ever passed mean notes (and you know who you are, you Mean Girls) or signed a slang book, you can do this without trying. Nicknames, code names, abbreviations, gangsta rap, cockney rhyming slang... whatever works for you.

Example: "Marilyn accidentally sent Rita the payroll file
with all the salaries attached" can become "Nineball has the $$ list." No one is searching text for "Nineball."

Just like your parents would have made. Includes actual screenshots, IM capture, keystrokes, browser logging, and once again more reporting than you would think they had time for. But how they do love the metrics.

Countermeasure ~ Spyware
You probably can't install this on the company computer yourself, and more's the pity. But isn't it nice to know that someone is making money by playing us off of each other?

What to do when you are confronted
I am operating under the assumption that you have not done anything unethical, like stolen company secrets, embezzled, harassed a co-worker, or violated any actual laws. If you have, you are not only to take the punishment coming to you, you will kindly leave my class.

My assumption is that you have violated your company's silly "No Being Disgruntled" policy, and for that I applaud you. But now you're on the hook and you need to play it cool. This can get very interesting, because the Boss's snooping is no better or worse than whatever you said or did. No laws have been broken except that of trust and loyalty.

1 - How did they find it?
If this was a forum that was supposedly confidential, deny authorship. With a slow shaking of the head and a never-heard-of-it eyebrow raise, lower lip protruding thoughtfully...simply say that wasn't you. They won't want to admit how they know it is.

If this has your signature right on it, read on.

2 - What did you actually say?
If it was untrue ("She slept with him to get that promotion."), cite your source...vaguely. Never sell out your co-workers, but you can say apologetically, "It's true, I don't know that for a fact. I shouldn't have passed on gossip," (even if you made it up yourself)

It if was true and mean ("I can't believe a moron like that is in charge."), call it an emotional outburst. As if disappointed in yourself add, "That's a lesson learned, for sure."

If it was true and coded ("Cyclops and Gandolf missed the meeting.") obfuscate. Laugh, shrug, and say, "Who even knows anymore. What did you want to ask me?"

If it was just plain true ("She cuts me off at the knees every time I try to raise an original idea.") Commit to it. Square your shoulders, hold eye contact and say, "I firmly believe that with all my heart."

In any case, follow-up with, "How did this come to your attention?"

3 - How much data is there?
Bosses who like data like to present it in a dramatic flair. (The slinky-drop effect of unfolding a ream of form-feed paper is sadly now lost to us.) When the numbers don't lie, take an absurdly long time to review them. Preferably with a pencil in hand. After the Boss has shifted weight at least 3 times, say "It's certainly a lot of information. What does it all mean?"

If you want to know what your rights are, you can look at some of the reference below. Better to stay cloaked. And best to stay above it all.

But you can see that even I don't do that.

Cyberspace and the Law
Protect your Digital Privacy
How to be Invisible


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