Where does business end and personal space begin? Or the reverse? These are thorny, challenging questions.
The recent horrific German flight tragedy shows how bad things can get when a person can hide his personal troubles from his employer. But what about much less catastrophic — yet still extremely crucial (in life experience) crises and challenges, such as divorces, family health problems, or personal financial distress? We can even notch this down a step further — a disappointing date, family argument, an off-hours traffic accident . . . anything that loads personal stress into someone’s life . . . could undoubtedly have impact on the individual’s work and business relationships. The reverse also applies. (How many divorces are caused when individuals put their work ahead of their family relationships?)
Then we overlay these considerations on marketing and business development challenges, and the problems can become even more thorny. You are bidding a job, for example, and the person responsible for reviewing/opening the bids has just experienced a really bad day at home. Can this affect the results in ways you wouldn’t have anticipated? Or a key decision-maker suddenly becomes unavailable.Is this because the person is trying to avoid you, or her mother is seriously ill and she has elected to take some emergency time off work.
You might say: “Well, the solution to that type of problem is simply for someone to communicate the personal news, and everyone will understand.” Perhaps — but does everyone want to broadcast a marital dispute, or, worse, a significant mental health challenge either involving an employee or someone at their home?
As well, of course, there are the personal decisions that might in theory affect the business in some circumstances but not others. Facebook images of your behaviour at wild parties or on your vacation may have nothing to do with your work, but if you don’t set your privacy settings right, everyone can certainly view them and even if you set things at “private”, your personal experiences may still go places you don’t want it to go. Conversely, some businesses demand regular credit checks on current and potential employees. These may make plenty of sense if the individual has responsibility for cash or business finances, but does the news sour relationships in other situations where it isn’t truly job-related?
There are lots of questions here, of course, and few answers.
I expect most businesses handle the issue of personal vs. business space with some common-sense rules. For example, in our case, we have no general need to communicate (except in very rare emergencies) outside of regular business hours. Accordingly we’ve always had a rule that no one is expected to read or reply to emails on the weekend and after hours. It is okay to send emails, and equally okay to answer them, but silence can still be golden, and is respected. (And phone calls and in-person meetings never happen outside business hours except through previous arrangement (or in extreme emergencies.)
On another level, I advise employees to generally use the company email account for business-related email, and to keep their personal emails personal. Does everyone follow the rule? No — and so sometimes I receive unintended copies of truly personal matters on the not-so-private company email server, an I expect quite a bit of business-related correspondence goes out and beyond the company’s management eyes (but we aren’t Hillary Clinton or the U.S. State Department here.)
Certainly, it’s quite okay to look up personal employee, client and supplier-related information through public but not intrusive internet searches — if you leave your candid photos up on Facebook within privacy settings that allow the viewing, can you say it is wrong for others to take a look? — but obviously it is wrong to hack, use backdoor or other questionable methods to snoop.
In general, I believe it is right to seek out and apply personal information if it will help further your business relationships or to gain an understanding of the driving forces affecting the other person’s motivations and values, but it is equally important to respect privacy, both in the absolute sense and in the concept that individuals need some personal space. (Their Facebook may be ‘on’ during the weekend, but should you communicate with the employee in after-hours messaging communications?)
Sadly, these common-sense guidelines can fall apart into rather serious disasters or misdeeds when privacy rights falsely override business security or public safety. However, I think the risks of excessive intrusion and failure to respect privacy are far more serious overall. We need our space. We need some degree of privacy and the right to separate our business and personal affairs.