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Privacy Policies Need a Generational Update

It’s like telling ghost stories when I talk to my students:

“When I was in college, professors would post grades on the walls outside of their offices. But to protect your privacy, instead of posting names with grades . . . they would post your social security number!” There’s always an audible gasp when I tell this story. Some students take several seconds before they can close their mouths from the shock. But times have changed regarding thoughts about privacy.

The other day I had a student call me to make sure the company hiring them was a legitimate company, and not a scammer posing as the company, because, “They told me they won’t hire me unless I fill out a form with all of my personal information – including my social security number!” (It was a great opportunity to educate the student on the original and primary purpose of social security numbers.)

Identity theft has created a generation that is extremely careful about sharing social security numbers or passwords, and their caution is helping to reduce the problem somewhat. (Baby Boomers: How many of you still have your passwords written on a piece of paper in your office?) At the same time, social media, particularly sites like Snapchat or Whisper, have created a generation that is also extremely comfortable sharing every other detail of their personal lives, beliefs and challenges. In particular, this is a generation that has learned the best way to solve a challenging problem is to crowdsource.

What does this mean to you as an employer?

Don’t assume the business of your company will always be kept confidential, unless you explicitly tell young hires not to share information. When presented with a new problem, a young person’s first instinct will be to turn to the internet for benchmarks and training from people who have handled similar challenges. If they cannot find this, their second plan is to ask for input from people who have faced similar challenges. If you are fortunate, they will restrict these requests to people in your organization. Otherwise, it is entirely possible they will go to discussion boards, professional groups, or even customers and competitors to gather information. It used to be that companies were primarily concerned about what was on Glassdoor’s corporate reviews. Now corporate problems can be posted, with the best of intentions, on even broader groups such as reddit without them realizing it.

But a well-written social media policy isn’t nearly enough to address the entire problem. I had a student who was interning for an organization, and he ran out of work to do. Having a great deal of initiative and drive, the student took it upon himself to call the top executives of the organization’s client companies to gather feedback on the performance of the organization where he was interning, and even went so far as to brainstorm possible solutions to these challenges with the executives – without ever consulting his manager about his efforts.

The manager was very upset when he discovered what had happened, but when you think about it, this level of drive and initiative is exactly what you want in a new employee. It just needs to be channeled and managed. I worked with the manager to develop more comprehensive communication policies for their interns and new hires that included specific expectations around discussions with external entities.

The solution can be fairly simple once the problem is acknowledged. The standards and expectations for privacy are evolving, so managers need to prepare their organizations to manage these new communication issues with their new hires, before misunderstandings can create problems.

Jamie Belinne is the author of The Care and Feeding of Your Young Employee: A Manager’s Guide to Millennials and Gen Z. Belinne surveyed more than 13,000 Millennial and Gen Z employees as well as hundreds of their employers, to write The Care and Feeding of Your Young Employee: A Manager’s Guide to Millennials and Gen Z. Belinne shares stories and data demonstrating the differences and best practices for managing expectations, communication styles, productivity, motivation, and recruiting with the youngest and largest generations in the work force today.

Blog post first published by the National Association of Colleges and Employers:

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