Reading confidential docs on plane raises workplace issues

Reading confidential docs on plane raises workplace issues

The current controversy over an insurance company employee who pulled out confidential documents about restructuring and redundancies and started reading them in full view of passengers has raised serious issues about working in transit.

A passenger on the flight, Frank van der Zwaag said he was on the Auckland to Wellington flight last Wednesday evening when a woman sitting near him pulled out a stack of papers marked “private and confidential”.

She was wearing a badge marked “AMP”, and her personally-addressed letters also carried the company name, Mr van der Zwaag said.

“I could clearly see it was about an HR department restructuring.

“AMP staff can contact me if they want to know which letter they will get before they are posted.”

The woman left the letters in her seat pocket when she went to the toilet, Mr van der Zwaag said.

“I thought, this is amazing. I’m sitting there, looking across the aisle, and she pulls out the letters from a plastic sleeve and sits there quietly reading.”

He said someone who worked at the company or knew one of the affected workers could have seen the letters.

“Having gone through redundancy myself, I know that’s not how you want to find out.”

AMP is going through a restructuring after its merger in March with AXA. A spokesperson for AMP said consultations about affected employees had not been completed. They also said that AMP was investigating the allegations made by Mr van der Zwaag.

Employment law expert Kathryn Beck, a partner at Swarbrick Beck MacKinnon, said the incident gave rise to many potential legal problems.

Redundancies were common after a merger, but companies had to follow procedures and there could be issues if they had drawn up termination letters too early, she said.

“If my name was on a termination letter and a friend had looked over the shoulder and saw it, first of all it’s a huge breach of privacy,” Ms Beck said.

“But if I thought I was only partway through a process and had a shot at the job going, and yet there’s someone else sitting on a plane with my termination letter, it shows the process was a sham … That would be a really bad look for them, as well as mortifying for the person involved.”


It is a common trend that employees and contractors will use transit time when travelling for work to check emails and read and edit documents.

Our digital age had made it possible to do this in places like airport lounges and on aircraft. Smart phones and laptops help let us operate like we are virtually in our own office.

The problem for many workers is that they act like they are in their own working environment as well. Many are quite happy to have loud phone conversations on their mobile phones about work stuff oblivious to the fact they are broadcasting to a dozen or so strangers sitting near them.

The attitude seems to be – these people will not know what I am talking about. The truth is that many do. Often employee’s are clearly identifiable as Mr van der Zwaag found with his AMP lady. Some of the anonymous listeners might even work in the same industry as the broadcaster or worse still for a competitor.

On aircraft restrictions on electronic gadgets means that the papers get dragged out of the briefcase and avidly read. But due to the love affair with large fonts and colour, the people nearby are avidly reading as well.

Impending redundancies in a major corporate is more gripping reading than the bland in-flight magazine.

This type of verbal and passive broadcasting of confidential material is not restricted to airports and aircraft. The humble commuter train and bus are fertile ground for strangers to find out what is going on inside an organisation.

Conversations between employees or between employee and friend on public transport are often work related and not very often complementary about their workplace and certain individuals in it.

The psychology of why people treat strangers as unhearing and unknowing is a whole study in itself. One partial explanation is that many of these travelers (especially the airport ones) have ego’s as large as their expense budgets. For them, they want the world to know what kind of important, vital work they do as if somehow it affirms them as vital and important.

In simple terms, staff who are travelling on business need to be reminded that keeping confidential documents away from unauthorised eyes is vitally important. Likewise the broadcasting of confidential information via loud mobile phone conversations is also unacceptable.

To be blunt the ‘leaking’ of confidential information whether intentionally or not is regarded by most organisations as ‘misconduct’ which results in disciplinary action. For many it is ‘serious misconduct’ which will deprive an employee of their job and thus their ability to yell and read confidential stuff in public places.

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