A Post To Read After Work

Attachments_ThumbnailI’m sorry to disappoint those who thought that the title of this post indicated X-rated content.  You’ll have to look elsewhere for nudity and profanity (not that I haven’t been known to slip an occasional “excretory” or “mildly offensive” word into a post or two).

Rather, what you’ll find here is a discussion about a novel, a very cute book that touches on a sobering topic: our limited rights in the workplace.

The novel is Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments, a story that begins in the latter half of 1999 at a newspaper, The Courier, which is engaged in a losing battle against the World Wide Web.  It is not a newspaper failing due to the rapid decline in print advertising after the rise of the internet (like most papers today).  Instead, it’s a newspaper concerned about the decrease in productivity and the potential for liability associated with employee access to the Internet at work.  So, what does this paper do?  It hires a guy named Lincoln to be an “Internet security officer,” whose job description includes “monitor[ing] everything everyone [is] doing on the Internet and the Intranet.  Every e-mail. Every Web site. Every word.”

The employees are warned, but some do not listen and continue to write personal emails at work under the assumption that, “All this security stuff isn’t aimed at people like us.  They’re trying to catch the pervs. The online porn addicts, the Internet blackjack players, the corporate spies…”

And so Beth Fremont, a young movie reviewer, and Jennifer Scribner-Snyder, a Features copy editor, carry on as usual, writing each other a slew of personal emails containing loads of flagged words that all end up in Lincoln’s hands.

It’s the set-up for an unconventional romance between two people—an Internet security officer and a woman who breaks all the rules.  One has never seen the object of his affection, while the other has seen, but has never met, the object of hers.  It’s a sweet story with likeable characters, particularly Lincoln, a respectful, well-meaning guy, who is described as being, “built like a tank, dressed like he just won the science fair.”  He’s adorable.

The only problem is Lincoln has the type of job that makes him feel like a creep because it forces him to invade other people’s privacy, not that those employees have any reason to expect privacy in the workplace.  That’s true in real life, too.  In most cases, it is completely legal for employers to monitor employee internet and email usage, and many do.

In a 2007 study, the American Management Association found that of the employers they surveyed:

  • 65% block access to certain websites
  • 43% monitor email (with someone like Lincoln at 40% of these workplaces)
  • 45% monitor time spent on phones and outgoing calls
  • 16% record phone conversations
  • 9% monitor employees’ voicemail
  • 48% use video monitoring

Problematically, not all of these employers notified their employees of these monitoring practices, and many did so only by printing it in the Employee Handbook, which employees might not have read thoroughly (but should have).

The likely result of breaking these rules—whether or not the employee knows about it—is discipline or the loss of a job, not true love, contrary to the Hollywood ending of Rowell’s sweet novel.

*It was Molly’s thorough review at Wrapped Up In Books that encouraged me to read this book.


  1. Hi, arrived here via ashnfinn. I am under full CCTV and audio cover all the time at work. Kills idle gossip, yes it’s a pia but we’re all aware of it. It’s very useful for disproving malicious complaints. All computers are proactively monitored, log on codes, key strokes. Will look out for this one, sounds like it could be a cautionary tale………

    1. Welcome! There are a lot of people who can identify with the workplace experiences you mention. I hope you enjoy the book! It’s a cute romantic comedy.

  2. Sounds like an interesting story…just threw it on my Goodreads list.

    Pretty much with any job I’ve ever had, I just assume that I am being watched at all times. Now in the age of smartphones, I keep everything off of my work computer even though we are technically allowed to use it for personal use. I like to separate my work and personal life as possible to avoid the possibility of damning evidence. : )

    1. I hope you enjoy it! It’s a very cute romantic comedy. I also assume that I’m being watched all the time. It’s wise to your smartphone, unless your employer gave it to you (and so can take it back at any time).

  3. This is a lesson a co-op student will learn the hard way from time to time. As long as employees are informed, it is fair game for work time to be considered work time. It IS “easier” for people when sites can be blocked (FB, etc.) because surfing is SOoooo tempting, especially if you’re bored. Good post.

    1. It amazes me what interns think is acceptable to do on work computers. I wonder if it’s generational and if there’s even less of a division between work and play than there used to be.

      1. You know, I fear that is exactly the situation. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out as the global economic changes impact at least some workplace environments.

  4. Adding this one to my list for sure!! I might be in the minority, but I don’t mind being watched. I’m not doing anything wrong, so if my employer wants to spend their dollars hiring someone to watch me, I say “enjoy, for the three minutes it will take you to be bored to bits.”

    1. I hope you enjoy the book! It’s very cute. Lincoln reminded me of my husband, who would fit a similar physical description (“built like a tank, dressed like he just won science fair”) and is good with computers.

      I can understand why surveillance wouldn’t bother you when you’ve got nothing to hide. However, one potential problem is that you just don’t know what an employer might flag as inappropriate. In the US, most of us are “at will” employees, and so we can be fired for any reason (as long as it isn’t discrimination under a specific anti-discrimination law). An employer could fire an employee for just for sending a personal email, regardless of the content, or because of something random we mentioned in the message.

  5. That has been going on for years in corporate America. Funny, but I have a friend in education (of elementary kids) where this does not occur and you think it would. Teachers not being watched? This friend is in administration and is on the net all day long reading blogs and emailing. Some days, she has been to my blog 20 times. Imagine how many others there are?

    1. Yes, employers can properly claim that you’re not working effectively when you’re constantly distracted. Too many employees (I’m guilty at times) work way below their capacity and access to the Net certainly doesn’t help.

      1. Employers can certainly claim that you’re working below capacity, but does it matter as long as you’re getting all your work done? I’m a night owl and so I find that I do my best work after hours. I spend most of my day being easily distracted only to make up for it at night.

        1. I don’t think an employee is keeping his/her part of the bargain by just doing the minimum under their contract – though you as a lawyer would probably argue that successfully. If I’m preparing a set of accounts (for example) they’re not going to be done as well if I’m clicking onto FB every few minutes. It’s stealing your employer’s time – there’s always something you can find to do that is of use.

    2. That does sound excessive, but maybe your friend is just one of those people who is more efficient when multitasking? For some people, being online is like doodling, and they’re still able to get their work done.

      1. Interesting. I know when I worked at a firm, it was forbidden to use the web other than for work related activities. They had software installed to monitor use. I agree it is stealing the employers time. There is enough of that with socializing in the workplace.

  6. Since I’m a teacher we don’t really “get” personal calls at school. The secretaries make sure no calls get through while we are teaching, unless it is an emergency. The school district blocks Facebook and other social media on district computers. But I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t have their own cell phone! We can make all the calls we want and message and check our social media, but not on the employer’s system. I would never use my district email for personal correspondence at this point. I definitely wouldn’t want someone reading my private emails.

    1. My sister is also a teacher, and it’s the same way at her school. From the way she describes her day (she has a heavy load of classes), it seems like she’s too busy in the classroom to have any time for goofing off online.

  7. The book sounds interesting. The statistics are horrifying. I’m gonna come right out and say it: if I wasn’t allowed free use of the internet during work, or I couldn’t write or do research, I’d be so friggin’ bored, I’d slit my wrists. I’m one of those assholes who gets their work done quickly and efficiently and then have nothing to do for hours.

    What do employers expect you to do in such cases? When I could, I’d help others, but that wasn’t always possible.

    1. I think there are many people who are much more efficient when they’re able to take a short break and “recharge” by checking email or visiting blogs, just like some people have to doodle while in meetings. If the work is getting done, then employers shouldn’t really care about what people are doing on the internet. The liability issue (such as sending sexually harassing emails) is another issue, but proper training can go a long way without having to monitor employee computer usage.

      1. While there are always people who will use the internet in ways that break the law, my guess is they are few and far between. Most people just want to keep their minds occupied. Fortunately, I no longer have an office job, so I can do whatever I want online. The only one who’s tracking me now is our government, and I’m not going to open that can of worms right now.

  8. This is a very real threat. Who knows how many people have lost their job over this? My advice is to not use an employer computer at work for personal reasons. period. The funny thing is we all did in my profession when the computers first came out. WE all were so curious. I would see doctors as well as nurses in the surgical area where I worked surfing CNN or whatever in between patient care etc. It was just addicting to some folks to see an empty computer and they were bored for a minute at work and just went on it surfing. My generation I think was the first to feel the sting of worker rights vs computer access as real discussions. I am out of the work force now, but if I was working right now I would just have my Iphone and never use an employer computer!

    1. Yes, it’s safer to use an iPhone or other smart phone, unless the employer issued it. I imagine there are many people who have lost their jobs over this type of thing. In the 2007 survey I mentioned, 28% of the employers said they had fired someone.

  9. I’m so glad you liked this book! It as interesting how you weave legal considerations into your reviews. I always enjoy seeing your take on a novel!

    1. Thanks for recommending it, Molly! It was so cute. It was funny how much Lincoln reminded me of my husband, who is built like a tank (at 6’5) and dresses like he won science fair. Ha!

  10. A book for our time certainly. Times have changed. When I was a young accounts clerk you were (possibly) allowed an occasional personal call if someone had died and only received a new pencil upon presentation of the old stub 😦 It’s a tricky balance between protecting the interests of the employer whilst acknowledging that employees aren’t slaves.

    1. Yes, it’s a tricky balance. Some of my cases are employment cases, mostly pregnancy discrimination, and it’s amazing to see how poorly employers treat employees, particularly in lower-wage jobs. Max Kennerly had an interesting post on it recently, “Using the Fair Labor Standards Act For Nickle and Dimed Employees” (http://www.litigationandtrial.com/2013/01/articles/attorney/civil-rights-1/flsa-settlements-nickel-and-dimed/). So, these days, employers often treat employees as though they own them, and it’s becoming increasingly problematic as people spend a higher percentage of the day at work, often at two or three jobs.

    1. I find it disturbing, too, though I do understand why employers want to curb employee distractions at work. I object to certain tactics (reading emails) more than others (blocking certain social websites).

      I hope you enjoy the book if you end up reading it. It doesn’t go too deeply into the ethics of workplace surveillance. Rather, such surveillance is a set up for a romantic comedy. It’s a cute story.

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