Employer spying: Shrieks in France, shrugs in U.S. «
Last month, French prosecutors placed the local subsidiary of Ikea and two of its top employees — France CEO Stefan Vanoverbeke and CFO Dariusz Rychert — under formal investigation amid allegations that the company’s human resources department gained access to private police records of potential and current employees. In fact, Swedish furniture giant expressed “regret” in 2012 after claims that it checked the judicial records and backgrounds of over 200 people. “We have ascertained that there have been some practices at Ikea France that are not up to our values or ethical standards,” Vanoverbeke said. “These practices are intolerable and unacceptable and I sincerely regret them.” (Ikea did not respond to requests for comment.)
But while some of the practices Ikea allegedly used are extreme, many are standard operating procedure in the U.S. and considered more along the lines of due diligence. “American employees are more accustomed than their French counterparts to employer surveillance, be that regular screen-captures on work computers, email monitoring, credit checks, drug tests and even polygraph tests,” says Adam Levin, co-founder of online security company Identity Theft 911. In the U.S., for instance, criminal records — felonies, misdemeanors, infractions or arrest records — are all searchable through public records. And companies are not shy about finding them: 72% of 1,500 human resources executives say their company carried out criminal background checks on people before hiring them, according to a recent survey by consulting firm PeopleG2.
American employers also have more control over what gets sent and stored on company equipment, legal analysts say. The French Supreme Court, for example, recently ruled that companies are not permitted to access emails on company computers that are clearly labeled by employees as “personal” or “private.” Under French law, workers can use company equipment for reasonable personal use such as daily activities like arranging laundry or school activities for kids, says David L. Gregory, executive director of the Center for Labor and Employment Law at the St. John’s University School of Law in New York. “Workers in France are entitled to that kind of personal privacy,” he says. “In the U.S., that information sent over company equipment belongs to the employer.”
U.S. companies will hire private eyes to investigate staff suspected of submitting fraudulent disability or sickness claims or moonlighting against company policy, says Larry Cary, partner at the law firm Cary Kane in New York, who represents employees and unions. “I’ve had a bunch of cases where the employee has been fired and the arbitrator has upheld the dismissal based on evidence of a private investigator.” Two Long Island Railroad retirees were recently found guilty of faking disabilities, in a Manhattan federal court; one had earned a black belt in karate (lawyers for each have said they intend to appeal). The lesson: If you’re off on a neck or back injury, “don’t golf, water-ski or throw your grandkid up in the air,” says Bill Kowalski, a principal and director of operation at the Corporate Investigative Services division of financial services firm Rehmann in Troy, Mich.
To be fair, companies often have good reason to pry. Organizations lose 5% of revenue to fraud annually, according to a 2012 study of 1,388 occupational fraud cases by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, an anti-fraud training organization; the median loss caused by worker fraud cases was $140,000, and 77% were committed by those in accounting, operations, sales, upper management, customer service and purchasing. But most employers won’t admit to hiring a private eye for fear of damaging employee morale, says Blythe Lovinger, partner at Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman in New York. “It could also be weeks before the investigator gets a result.” As Lori Johnson, a California-based licensed investigator, puts it, “We go over, shake the tree and see what kind of monkey falls out.”