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workplace privacy protectionMuch has changed in the workplace with respect to human resources as of late. However, payroll professionals remain committed to respecting their employees’ privacy in the context of the employment relationship.

This may or may not be reinforced by legislative requirements, depending on your location and the jurisdictions in which you operate. Canadian privacy legislation is a patchwork across federal and provincial jurisdictions in the public and private sectors. In summary:

  • Public sector employees have legislation that protects their privacy rights (except provincial employees in Ontario) under various public sector privacy and freedom of information statutes.
  • Federal private sector employees (those who work for organizations that operate under the Canada Labour Code) are covered by Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA).
  • Provincial private sector employees do not fall under PIPEDA. They are protected under privacy legislation only in those provinces with such legislation — British Columbia, Alberta and Québec.

While the overall commitment to respecting privacy remains, technological and other noteworthy changes have occurred. This includes the evolving impact of social media, the implications of remote work (and the technology for the supervision of remote work), and artificial intelligence (AI).

Social Media

Your employees are on social media. This often includes not just individual accounts on the various channels, but also employee groups or employee group chats that enable them to talk amongst themselves — sometimes about the workplace. In some ways, this is akin to when employees meet at a bar or restaurant after work to socialize and exchange notes.

Depending on the nature of the group, supervisors or managers may or may not be welcome additions. Employers should respect employee desires to exclude management from their social media groups. Nothing is more likely to poison employee engagement than the thought of management “spying” on employees in their personal spaces.

Employers should also note that contradictory internal messaging to different groups of employees is likely to be revealed in these spaces and become a topic of employee discussion. Therefore, employers should ensure that employee communications are transparent, and that different messaging to different employee populations is always reasonable and employment-related.

Remote Work and Workplace Surveillance

While the idea of remote work has been with us for quite some time, the pandemic triggered its widespread use overnight. Companies with technologies, policies and procedures based on employees showing up on site and using employer-supplied equipment found themselves dealing with the opposite: front-line employees needing access to company resources from their homes, sometimes with their own equipment.

To support employee privacy rights when working remotely, employers should have clear policies which recognize that employees have a right to a private life in their homes, even when they are remote workers. They should also consider addressing what employer-supplied equipment may and may not be used for.

Of particular note is the rise of so-called “brassware” that enables employers to monitor employees through their laptop cameras or ensure that their keyboards and mice are continuously active. An employee’s home is not a branch office of the firm. This computer-mediated surveillance of the employee’s workstation must have boundaries — both to respect privacy rights and to promote engagement from employees.

Artificial Intelligence

Like many technologies, AI-enhanced tools in the workplace are being used to enhance productivity and reduce costs. For instance, employers may use AI to sift through resumes and perform automated background checks to identify qualified candidates, to automate and make routing decisions about internal workflows, and to create content for various purposes.

The privacy concerns around using AI include:

  • Collecting information about prospective employees that violates human rights or employment standards;
  • Using the biases in training models to automate those biases in hiring (e.g., if your employee base has been traditionally white and male, for example);
  • Collecting information about employees for model training data without consent;
  • Making decisions about hiring or promotions based on algorithmic recommendations that cannot be explained or justified.

Given that these new technologies are being deployed, you would be smart to evaluate the capabilities of new technologies in terms of the outcomes you already use to manage payroll and HR:

  • Does the technology improve the capability of employees to do what you hired them to do?
  • Does the technology improve employee engagement and organizational performance?
  • Are employees’ privacy rights being respected?

The ROI for investing in new technologies should be a better workplace and a higher performing workforce whose privacy you respect. No matter how the workplace evolves in the digital age, workplace privacy protection is an investment in engagement, trust and loyalty amongst employees.

This article is an excerpt from Dialogue Magazine, which is received by members of the National Payroll Institute. If you are not already a member, we encourage you to join.

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