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Jan Hills

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EU ‘snooping’ ruling: the neuroscience of snooping on staff private messages


Neuroscience is now providing a source of insight into understanding human behaviour, with its methods of generating images of how our brains are functioning. These methods and images are invaluable tools with which to understand ourselves, including how we interact at work and how we respond to the rules and norms of work place policy.

When things change, the findings from neuroscience offers an additional lens to look at how employees may react and the potential impact of policies HR plan to implement. One policy likely to be exercising the collective minds of HR professionals right now is the EU ruling on reading private emails.

In our public persona many have looked on, at first horrified, then cynical, then bored by the revelations, and seemingly useless protests about invasion of privacy but will we feel differently when it is our employer and our work?

One perspective to consider before implementing new policy is the brain response that is likely to be generated and with that response the behaviour that stems from our often unconscious reactions. I think there are four considerations:

1) The first is we know a sense of equity or fairness is important to humans. Fairness activates the reward circuity in the brain and whilst employers might argue that it is fair for them to be able to view personal emails if they are sent on work machines and in work time the counter argument is many employees undertake work activities in their personal, non-paid time. A lack of privacy may well set up a feeling of unfair treatment, a threat response and with it the consequent impact on levels of cognitive processing, creativity, retreat-to-survival and disengagement.

2) The lack of autonomy to work freely, including the blurring of the line between time spent on personal versus business, may well also set up a sense of threat. It can be argued autonomy is at the essence of the psychological contract in a modern organisation at least where people are employed for their brain power. Discretionary effort and creativity are expected. When we can’t control who has access to our personal information, even if this is work related, we lose a sense of autonomy and its associated reward, and instead feel disempowered.

3) The third area is trust: we know social connection and trust are important for wellbeing and engagement (you can read more in my earlier article, "Science of Engagement: the key is trust"). It is hard to imagine how a policy of monitoring email can coincide with high levels of trust. We know trusting others results in a release of the chemical oxytocin and behaviour which is more trustworthy.

Charles Fried, a professor of law and ethics, says: “Privacy, is necessarily related to ends and relations of the most fundamental sort: respect, love, friendship and trust… without privacy they are simply inconceivable."

It could well be that a lack of privacy will also inhibit creativity openness and access to positive emotions like hope, joy and happiness. All emotions we know lead to openness, learning, insight and creativity.

Surely this is more important that the odd hour spent on personal emails at work or a need to know what people are writing?

I believe that in HR we frequently create policy to deal with a very small percentage of people who abuse their position in the company. The consequence of this can be we disempower and disengage the majority.

So whilst excessive abuse of work information and time used for personal affairs needs a means of redress surely there are existing ways to do that which don’t leave the majority of employees feeling threat, distrust and a lack of autonomy.

6 Responses

  1. Great piece. The writer is
    Great piece. The writer is spot on when she notes “The first is we know a sense of equity or fairness is important to humans.” It’s often overlooked, I think, just how strong our aversion to unfairness is.

    One of my favourite experiments is the ultimatum game where someone hands you one hundred dollars with the pre-condition that you must share it with another person. How much you choose to share is up to you, but if the other person – who knows of the $100 amount – rejects the offer, you leave with nothing.

    Most times, when it’s played in an academic setting, people nearly always share equally. And when the person tries to be greedy (maybe trying to give 25 while keeping 75), they are invariably punished by the other through rejection, meaning we’re willing to forego money to punish selfishness.

  2. Hi Jasmine, I think it might
    Hi Jasmine, I think it might be about increasing our sense of certainty. the more we give the illusion of control the more certaan we feel. Not sure anyone has actually researched this but it would be one brain-based explanation.

  3. Fortuately employees will
    Fortuately employees will fight back with email creating software, van drivers using GPS jammers and by strapping FitBits to their dogs. Theres a good article by Sarah O’Connor about this in the FT today. Employee Surveillance will turn people into mutinous teenagers. It seems to that technology is bringing a resurgeance of Taylorism. Very worrying.

  4. It’s not just in HR that
    It’s not just in HR that people create policies to deal with a very small percentage! It seems to happen in many fields, often. Is there a reason neuroscientifically speaking as to why people are drawn to doing this?

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Jan Hills


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