Wednesday, October 6, 2010

But It Wasn't Me

Here is an article on the emergence of companies that seek to make their next buck by promising to tell employers which employees will do something wrong -- so that they can be fired prior to actually doing something wrong -- so as to avoid the legal liability of having someone on staff who does something wrong. (Except for those people high enough up the corporate food chain that they wouldn't be subjected to this. Does anyone actually think a system like this would have been allowed to nab Dennis Kozlowski or Andrew Fastow? Although given the trajectory of Fastow's career, it might have been a benefit for him.)

But all of the Big Brother hysteria (and personal cynicism) aside, there is a simple question: How does the software know who you are, exactly? Lets say that your name is James or Mary Smith. Congratulations! You have the most popular first and last names in the nation! (As of the 2000 census, if I remember correctly.) There's likely at least one other person with your name in whatever city you live in, if it's of any size. And now the HR department of your company has been warned that you've been displaying "Poor Judgment" online, and your supervising manager has been notified. If the purpose of these software packages is the "protection of the company from future behavior" you could be out on the street without knowing what hit you, for something that not only you haven't even done, but something that it was decided that you were going to do because of something that someone else did. (Whew!)

When (not if, most likely) systems like this come on-line, it's going to be hard for a lot of people, and not just the ones who staged their own "college kids gone wild" party that winds up with their faces (and other parts of them) plastered all over Facebook and elsewhere and then blows up in their faces five years later. The harder any given online individual is to distinguish from any other, the greater the likelihood that they'll be nabbed for something they didn't do. About the only real way to be "safe" would be to have a highly visible, unique and scrupulously clean online life. But since this is all about protecting the companies, that might not help much, either. It's going to take something that we have a tendency to shy away from - holding Corporate America accountable for its actions, and not just those that damage the stock price directly.

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