Professional Ethics

I have high opinions of those working in the library and information fields, but there are times when my jaw hits the floor when I hear about a lack of professional ethics. This is one of those times. Thankfully, my colleagues are outstanding to work with and whom I hold in high regard. Let me point out that librarians are entrusted to do their best to protect an individual’s privacy, which is partly why this occurrence at a near by library upsets me.

The situation begins when one librarian (we will call her Susan) gets up from the reference desk to help a patron. Before leaving, Susan locks the terminal so that it requires her password before the computer can be used again. Unfortunately, the librarian mistakenly leaves her work email in public view so that anyone walking by can see the list of emails she recently received. Employees at this library are not supposed to use work email for personal reasons; it is a city-wide rule and not limited to the library.

One of Susan’s coworkers (we will call her Katie) notices that Susan left her email up in full view. Almost immediately, Katie begins to look through Susan’s emails and notices the personal email communications. Katie turns to another colleague at the desk and starts pointing out the personal email and tried to read Susan’s email. The other colleague (we will call her Rose) does not want anything to do with the situation because Katie controls Rose’s work schedule. Rose tries to ignore Katie’s comments and attempts to get her involved.

Katie thinks it is important that Susan’s supervisor sees this “blatant violation of the rules” and tries to forward the messages to the supervisor. Unable to forward the messages since the computer is locked, Katie prints the screen and leaves the printout on the supervisors desk for review.

A host of questions spring to mind. Where does personal privacy end and employee privacy begin at this library? Did Katie step over the line of professional ethics? Was it really necessary for Katie to look through Susan’s email and take a screen shot of the computer screen? How should the manager handle the situation? How should the coworker who did not want to get involved dealt with this occurrence? And what would motive Katie to do something like this?

First of all, it is my opinion that Katie had no right to look at Susan’s email. Yes, Susan used her work email for personal use, which violates the city-wide rule. However, the city regulations do not give Katie any rights to invade Susan’s personal privacy, whether the email was work-related or personal. Katie could have talked to Susan directly to let her know of the wrong. Rose could alert both Susan and the supervisor of the situation to provide a third person perspective, but also state that she did not see any of the email.

Hopefully, the supervisor will have the insight to balance between personal privacy (advise Susan against using work email for personal use and suggest not leaving personal info in view of the public or other coworkers) and professional integrity (Katie reading Susan’s email and taking screen shots without Susan’s permission). Katie is just as much in the wrong, if not more, and should also be warned. Katie’s motives are either play-things-by-the-books, or she does not like Susan (very likely the later). This kind of behavior is extremely disappointing, and it creates a very distrustful and poisonous atmosphere.


About repplinger

John has served as a Reference Librarian at Willamette University since 2002. He is the liaison to the Science Departments, and is responsible for maintaining the collections related to the life & physical sciences. His research interests range over the entire spectrum of libraries and information sciences, but includes: - Google and its influence on information & society - The Internet's influence on information seeking & sharing behaviors - Trends of scholarly communication - Electronic learning environments - Traditional pedagogy - GIS use in academic libraries

Posted on June 10, 2009, in Ethics, Libraries, Privacy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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