Secret CIO: When Affairs Of The Heart Raise IT Privacy Issues

Businesses must determine where their right to know ends and employee privacy begins.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

December 6, 2001

4 Min Read

Kratmeyer, head of International Operations, rarely comes to my office. Given his lofty executive position, our meetings normally occur in his spacious quarters. Whenever he visits me, I know he wants a favor, usually one that would put me on the edge of an ethical cliff. It's not that Kratmeyer's a terrible human being (I have met worse); it's just that I always seem to want to wash my hands after any dealings with him.

Smiling, he sidled through the door and deposited himself in one of the chairs in front of my desk. It was an omen--and not a positive one. If he had sat at my miniconference table, it would've been a sign that I was to move quickly to join him, and the favor I'd be expected to deliver might not be too large. Obviously, though, by allowing me to remain behind my desk he was acting as a supplicant, which wasn't good. My hands began to feel the need for soap.

"Herb," he said, "I have a little situation in my organization that's delicate and has to be handled with discretion. It has to do with two of my employees, and the reason I need your help is because it involves the E-mail system and the Internet. Let me explain so that you and I can make this problem go away without too much fuss."

Inwardly, I winced. Beware when an autocrat uses phrases like "need your help" and "you and I." The next half-hour wasn't terribly pleasant. Finally, he left in an irritable mood, stating that "as usual" I wasn't able to "understand what's necessary when you run a business."

Kratmeyer had told me that he was fairly sure that two of his managers were having an affair. Both were on the same level of the organization chart and both were married--just not to each other. It was his opinion that, if true, it would be very bad for morale and a distraction to the salespeople if the situation became known around the office. Kratmeyer wanted to verify the facts by having me monitor their E-mail messages and their Web use. Were they corresponding with each other, and what were they saying? Were they using the Internet to make hotel or travel reservations at the same locale? Winking, he explained how easy it was to add a day on either end of a business trip without anyone in the family realizing that it wasn't business-related. I wondered in passing how he knew it was so simple.

I explained that the company has rules about accessing employee E-mails and monitoring their Web use. Under the policy, the VP of human resources and the general counsel both have to agree before I could collect or release that kind of information. If he got their approval, I said, I'd give him what he wanted, but added that I doubted he would because there didn't seem to be either harassment or business ethics involved.

Of course, I realized that Kratmeyer understood that he had no grounds under the company's policy for what he wanted in the first place, because he'd come to me instead of going through the proper channels. I probably shouldn't have, but I told him that I was uncomfortable with his reason for surveillance, since more than a few people would say that what two consenting adults do with their hormones on their own time is none of the company's business.

After he left, I sat in my chair quietly and then got up and closed the door to my office. I wanted some time to reflect on what had just happened. If these two managers really were in a romantic relationship, probably a lot of people dear to them were going to get hurt because of it.

Kratmeyer had a tough problem. I didn't want to belittle the damage it could do to his department. I could understand that he didn't want anything to agitate his group, especially during these economic times, but there are better ways of handling the situation than using the power of the company to get proof of what these two people might be doing. Sitting down with them individually and letting them know of the rumor could be a start. Certainly, seeking the advice of Stephanie, our VP of human resources, might help identify solutions that neither he nor I had considered.

The extent and limits of E-mail and Internet privacy are still evolving. The electronic tools we have available are powerful, and how we should use them is still under debate. What's fair game and what isn't? Monitoring customer-service E-mails and eliminating Web pornography in the workplace are considered reasonable, but what about keeping tabs on the extramarital affairs of employees if those affairs become a distraction at work?

I hope we make our decisions wisely. But after my meeting with Kratmeyer, I know the ultimate resolution won't be easy.

Herbert W. Lovelace shares his experiences (changing most names, including his own, to protect the guilty) as CIO of a multibillion-dollar international company. Send him E-mail at [email protected] and read his online column at, where he will provide real--and sometimes whimsical--answers to your questions.

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