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THE QUESTION

I work in an Ontario hospital where I have access to patient information as part of my job. In the past year close to 20 people have been fired for privacy breaches, with some as innocent as making a sympathetic comment about a patient to a co-worker. The hospital is being sued in a class action about privacy breaches and say it has to fire people now. But it has become clear that the employer, with the CEO's approval, is also using this to clear out employees they don't want. I am terrified to speak to people at work or even log in to my computer now; I consider this institutional bullying. The union is powerless to stop these terminations. How can I protect myself?

THE FIRST ANSWER

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Billy Anderson

Founder, Made You Think Coaching, Toronto

The best way for anyone to protect his or her job is to be the best employee in the building; then the boss will do everything possible to keep you there. However, an organization can get rid of you without cause at any point so long as you are given severance. In other words, the lawsuit is almost irrelevant here: If they want you gone, they can do it.

By law, once you have been at an organization for five years they need to give you two weeks' severance for each year you have been there. Most places give you at least two weeks per year regardless if you've hit the five-year mark. However, unionized workplaces may operate differently so I suggest you find out how yours is set up to deal with this kind of situation.

You need to continue maintaining patient privacy as if your life depends on it. If anyone presses you for patient information, blame your zipped lips on the legal action taking place.

How strong is your relationship with your boss? She can't tell you if you're on the chopping block, but you can get her thoughts on how best to protect yourself. Every organization is different and every boss has a different relationship with the people making the firing decisions.

The bigger question is, do you even want to work at a place where you feel there is such a lack of trust and respect? Will you be happy if you make it through this round of layoffs or will you still feel as if you're walking on eggshells every day?

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THE SECOND ANSWER

Heather MacKenzie

The Integrity Group, Vancouver

Privacy breaches in health care are making headlines these days. It grabs our attention because the confidentiality of our private health and medical information is sacrosanct – and the law says so. So-called minor violations are still violations of privacy laws and/or breaches of trust that demand accountability.

You say the union at your hospital is "powerless" against what you imply are improper terminations. I don't buy that; unions have access to special mechanisms (such as grievance procedures and human rights complaints) to defend against supposedly groundless discharges, and routinely take on those fights. If your union is not doing that, it probably has good reasons that you aren't aware of. If you still feel that your union is failing in its duty to represent you, then you can complain to your provincial labour board.

You say your employer is using this as an opportunity to get rid of employees and that it constitutes "institutional bullying," but you haven't offered any evidence of that. As always, the best way to protect yourself is by making a positive contribution to the organization, carrying out your job effectively, and complying with all employer policies – especially those covering patient information and the use of computers and e-mail.

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I am not sure why you are worried about logging on to your computer, unless you have something to hide. If you are using the computer system for proper and authorized work purposes in accordance with your employer's policy, what are you afraid of? It should be your regular work practice to be professional, careful and discreet when dealing with private information in your workplace. I know this is common sense, but these days, in too many workplaces, it doesn't seem to be common practice.

Are you facing a burning issue at work? Need help navigating that minefield? Let our Nine To Five experts help solve your dilemma. E-mail your questions to ninetofive@globeandmail.com. Confidentiality ensured. Weigh in with your view at tgam.ca/careers. Check out past columns here.

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