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Boss Overhears Something He Doesn’t Want to Know

Dear Midas Jones – I am not sure that what I did was legal, so I am not signing this letter. I own a middle-eastern restaurant. I employ a restaurant manager, two assistant managers, cooks, waiters, busboys, cashiers, a part-time handyman, etc. I had some work done by a local free-lance phone guy – not a phone company employee – and he installed a device in my office that enables me to listen to phone conversations that anyone is making on either of the restaurant phone lines without anyone being able to detect that I am eavesdropping. This has provided me with some insight into my employees’ lives and with an interesting hobby, but recently it has given me a problem to solve.

My nightshift assistant manager has worked for me for five years. She has been an excellent employee, a hard worker, dependable, a good supervisor, and we get along together very well – or so I thought. I was listening to her speak to a girlfriend – someone she has introduced to me! – and she told her friend that she was going to ask me to change her schedule to give her a different day off so they could do some shopping together. When her girlfriend asked if I would be willing to change her schedule, my employee said, “I have that old idiot so twisted around my finger that he doesn’t know which way is up. He does anything I tell him too, the senile old fool.” She made other unkind remarks about me before she hung up. In a few minutes she came into my office to ask for the schedule change, sweeter than honey and to all appearances my best friend in the world. I was so taken aback by what I had overheard that I consented to the schedule change, figuring that I needed time to think. It has been a couple of weeks now, and even though she is still a superb worker I find myself hating the sight of her because of what she said. How can I solve this problem? – Listening

Dear Listening –The sooner she is gone, the better. The most important quality for one of your key subordinates is loyalty. You don’t need an employee who is not loyal to you. Loyal employees are rare; competent ones are a dime-a-dozen.

You have already learned that this person is capable of deceit. (We note in passing that you are too, but that is not pertinent to your question.) Find a good reason to fire her, lay her off, or start cutting her hours until she cannot live on the lowered wage. Between now and then, draw up a list of things that she has done wrong over the years so that you will have some things in the folder to justify your action. But, before you dismiss your night manger for coming to work late or forgetting to fill one of the salt shakers …

Check with a lawyer about your technological eavesdropping habits. In my book The Modern Prince, I advise everyone to avoid breaking laws. The penalties are vastly out of proportion to the benefits, even though most law breakers are never even suspected much less caught and punished. Depending on the laws in your state, you may be committing a crime by listening to your employees’ conversations. I am not a lawyer myself, and my legal education comes from reading the popular press, but the impression I have is that the law is tipping in the direction of the employer on the issue of employee privacy. I have read that employers may examine employee e-mail and any files stored on company-owned hard drives. Secret surveillance cameras and microphones watch us and listen to us all the time in places of business whether we are employees or customers. The Patriot Act allows the government to search our houses and businesses without our knowledge if a judge has issued a secret search warrant authorizing it. Employers can (or at least, do) listen to employee phone conversations to verify that only business is being discussed and can terminate the call if it is determined that the call is not business related. But, only a lawyer can tell you if you can legally listen to employee phone conversations just to learn what they are thinking, doing, and saying. If your lawyer says your actions are on the wrong side of the law, then you should have your phone guy quietly disconnect that device after hours. Tell the phone guy that your lawyer says that he installed an illegal listening device but that you don’t intend to report him to anyone. You need to keep him quiet about the work he did for you. 

If, however, the lawyer tells you that you are not breaking any laws then you can continue listening to and learning from your employees. While you are in the lawyer’s office, tell her that you intend to give your night manger the boot and make sure you understand what the legal reasons are for firing an employee. I’m sure your night manager has provided you with one of them over the years. – Good Luck, Midas

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