Be aware: Your company is watching you

Call it the public service announcement to start off your year: If you’re working at a startup where IT is a little fuzzy, policies are evolving as the company is being built and the organization is evolving quickly, you’re at higher risk than usual that your employers are willing to move fast, do things and ask for permission later. It makes sense almost intuitively: Early-stage startups generally don’t have their crap together, and are moving at a breack-neck speed. Is it legal? Of course not, but in a lot of startup circles, it seems as if the attitude is that if the company is unsuccessful, it’s a moot point. And if it grows at the speed of a top-tier rapid-growth company, well, you will have enough money and lawyers to figure it out later.

This article was triggered by a conversation I had with a couple of startup employees that wished not to be named at a company you’ve almost certainly heard of. I wasn’t able to get enough corroborated information to name the company (don’t worry, I’ll keep trying). For now, here’s a couple of annual reminders, as you’re leaping into 2022 all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Be careful what you say in the company Slack – It may feel like DMs are private, but did you know that a company admin can export all the DMs that have ever been sent on a Slack instance? Of course, there may be laws against exporting the data, but if you discussed something illegal or immoral in the DMs, you’re going to have as hard a time explaining that as your boss has explaining how they ended up with a copy of your DMs. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and you may have a case for suing your employer if your suspicious, over-eager head of IT decides to do some digging around, but that sort of thing is easily avoided by just keeping personal talk to personal channels, and work talk to work channels. Of course, even your texts may not stay private, but at least there’s a higher bar for getting access to those. And, y’know, if you are particularly paranoid, there’s always Signal or Telegram, with expiring messages.

Your bosses can monitor your company equipment – There’s often a clause in contracts about how you can and cannot use equipment provided by your company. Some of those things are obvious — don’t do illegal things — but others are more obscure. That’s all good and well, but read your contract carefully. There may be language that says that your company is allowed to monitor what you do on your computer. I don’t think that sounds particularly innocent, but it is worded obliquely in a lot of work contracts. In a world where AI tools are becoming more and more powerful, and where you sign a contract that says you’re completely cool with being tracked, there are a ton of companies (AktivTrak, ActiveOps, Veratio, to just name a few) that make software that can keep an eye on you, and your employers can install these on your computer with various degrees of stealth and permission from you.

AktivTrak claims it is used by 9,000+ organizations, and that its tool can be used to “Reference detailed logs of user activities and security events to better understand what transpired, when and by whom, while simultaneously providing insights to help ensure compliance.” I don’t know about you, but I feel safer already. (Screenshot: AktivTrak website)

HR is not on your side – The human resources department at your company might be friendly and helpful and lovely, and they may try their best to help resolve workplace issues, but they aren’t on your side: HR works for the company. They are there to protect the company’s interests. And when your interests and those of the company are at odds, remember that the people who work in HR — no matter how friendly they are — still need to pay their bills and have a good working relationship with their bosses after you’ve quit, been fired or otherwise get moved around within the company. And as James Altucher points out in his column, eventually, they will fire you.

You don’t owe a company your loyalty – Especially in the U.S., where a lot of employment is “at will,” i.e. you can be laid off at any time for any reason, you remain employed for as long as the company can afford you, and you’re contributing to the bottom line. Especially in startups, this is a mercurial universe, because goals and targets can shift from board meeting to board meeting. One month, the engineering department is the be-all and end-all of a company’s life blood. But the amount of money in the bank account and the fundraising environment can change quickly, and the next month, it could all change. Especially when the going gets tough, it may become tempting for leadership to run the company to its KPIs, and focus only on growth and customer acquisition. In that universe, engineering is of low importance in the short term, and suddenly advertising spend and the sales operation becomes top priority. Even great leaders with solid long-term visions can be forced into making abrupt changes. Loyalty in the professional world is a myth that benefits only the employers; if they need to let you go, they will, so when a recruiter comes knocking, take the call to see how you are priced in the market.

Don’t quitIf a manager or someone from HR is trying to make you quit on your own accord, as a rule of thumb, it’s best to resist. Don’t quit! A lot of mechanisms (including, in some states, unemployment benefits) only apply to you if you’re laid off. If you quit — and especially if you sign an agreement that you promise not to sue the company — you hugely weaken your options further down the line.

Did HR use your Slack DM messages or your emails against you? I’m talking to a number of startup employees at the moment — at a few different companies. I want to hear from you. Find me at