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Feb 8, 2011

WikiLeaks about your business?

Julian Assange turns his sights to the corporate world — and raises a host of questions for employers

By Dave Crisp

Now that WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange is preparing to go after a business in addition to his government targets, perhaps that casts some light on what he or the justice system should or shouldn’t do.

Shares of the suspected target, Bank of America, tumbled 3.5 per cent or $4 billion worth in a few hours. Of course, that’s the stock market for you and presumably some seemingly savvy investors would then take advantage of buying low and help stabilize the price almost as soon as it was perceived to be dropping.

After all no one actually knew at that point (and we still don’t) whether Assange’s claims to have damning evidence of downright illegal dealing actually were being made about this particular bank or not. Only by putting together information he dropped in earlier interviews was any connection guessed.

Whatever the outcome, a few things seem clear. Assange has found a new use for the Internet and hacking (which he was convicted of earlier in life). Many people seem OK that he’s revealed classified documents from governments. Whether they seem as willing to stand by now that he’s moving on to business is an unknown. The debate will no doubt rage extensively.

What his move toward business revelations raises is the question of what would have been the right approach if this isn’t. If you or I had evidence of illegal activity of a business or an individual, the more accepted course of action would be to present it to legal authorities, the police or SEC, and expect them to deal with it.

Innocent until proven guilty clearly falls into a grey zone if such information is simply published. No matter how clearly damning the “evidence” might be, there are rules about whether it is validated, admitted into judicial process and more. Simply dumping into the public domain may be a journalistic scoop approach applicable to public figures, institutions and public information, but when it is classified or proprietary material, however obtained, one would expect going through proper authorities first might be more appropriate. Would that be any less public? Perhaps initially, but certainly not as soon as charges are laid… and that, too, removes much of the right to presumption of innocence unless convicted.

What’s also clear is there are very few true secrets one can or should depend on staying secret, no matter what line of work or social endeavor you’re in. In one sense it’s great if we operate all the time as if anyone should be able to know what we’re saying or doing. Companies with rules against negative, behind-the-back gossip, for instance, clearly are straying into questions of confidentiality of individual conversations, hearsay and innuendo.

On the other hand, if a manager has a clear discussion with an employee about short-comings, isn’t gossiping behind their back, and puts this on record as a warning or developmental advice and that sort of personal information is made public by something like WikiLeaks, both we and law enforcement would take a pretty dim view of that. It seems likely we’d conclude the information would be damaging to all concerned. The employee’s reputation and future job prospects would suffer and so would the ability of managers to act properly in evaluating work in the future, thus damaging the ability of employees to improve. Some might argue pure verbal discussions should suffice, but we all know that until something is in writing, it’s often ignored.

It’s not like any of this is completely new. It’s probably more that a single individual with no grounding or connection to established process, like editorial oversight, for instance, has been able to rock some very large boats single-handedly in a dramatic way. Like so many new initiatives fuelled by wide open Internet and technology, this simply raises old questions in new ways and suggests that we’re all going to be extremely busy trying to figure out what’s best and what policies are needed to ensure that.

If it’s all right for Wikileaks to leak your information, how can you ensure your employees don’t routinely use conduits like that to reveal what they cannot themselves? Interesting?

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based consultant with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit

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