Q. Is this simply a matter of feeling a little violated?
A. Sometimes it’s more than that. Perhaps the employer finds out about something through the monitoring, like a serious medical condition that might cost the company money. Employers don’t want problems; they’re always looking for the easiest, cheapest solutions. That could mean you get fired.
Q. Is this why you advocate a national health care system in the book?
A. We have to get employers out of the medical business. You can’t expect a business that exists to make profits to pay for medical insurance and yet be blind to the cost of health care.
Q. You suggest other big changes in the way business is done.
A. I’m not recommending that we abandon the free market, but beyond that, everything should change. For example, the legal doctrine of “employment at will,” means you can be fired for almost any reason. No one knows for sure exactly how many people are fired without a legitimate reason, but the best estimates are that it’s at least 10 percent of all firings, or in excess of 150,000 people a year. That doctrine is an atrocity. It was simply fabricated by the courts. You shouldn’t be fired for things that don’t relate to your job.
Q. But you’re not talking about a government-controlled economy, are you?
A. That never turns out well. In China, it was Mao’s running of the economy that may have been the worst catastrophe in human history in terms of lives lost. I’m not advocating that employees can’t be let go for any reason, or that companies have to make bad business decisions to protect workers. But in the case of the firings I describe in my book, it’s the employers who are doing things you shouldn’t do in a market economy—making bad business decisions for silly personal reasons.
Q. Another topic: What rights do older workers truly have?
A. It’s not impossible to fire someone because of his or her age and get away with it, but you’re not likely to get away with it. If everybody who’s getting fired has gray hair, it’s not that hard to crunch the numbers and see if it’s a legitimate layoff.
Q. What about not getting hired because you’re too old?
A. That’s another matter. It’s a lot harder to prove you weren’t hired because of your age. You don’t even know who the other candidates were. You could find out, but only if you go to court. So there’s a lot of discrimination in hiring.
Q. Has anything improved in the time you’ve been involved with employment law?
A. Certain things are clearly better for some, like women and minorities. They are now protected by civil rights legislation, and they can reach levels they could not before because there’s a more level playing field.
Q. How can you protect yourself?
A. There are lots of little things people can do to protect themselves in the area of privacy. If you want to send a sensitive written message, use your cellphone and send a text message rather than an e-mail the company can easily monitor. When you’re home at night and log onto the company network to check the last few e-mails, make sure you log off the system before you check your personal account. That takes you from monitored to not monitored.
Q. Overall, what can we do to protect workers’ rights?
A. Elect government officials who care about human rights in the workplace, and then change the laws. Whether you are pro-employee rights or against employee rights is something most constituents don’t even consider. A member of Congress can vote to shaft employees every time the issue comes up and never lose a vote because of it. If the voters would pay as much attention to their rights as employees as they do to their feelings on foreign policy and school prayer and abortions, we’d have a lot better laws.
Chris Carroll is a journalist from Maryland.