Q: I am a certified public accountant at a large accounting firm. I am worried because the firm requires us to use our Social Security numbers as identifying numbers on client billing forms and expense reports. These forms are distributed throughout the firm, and the reports are used to create other internal reports that are widely disseminated. Copies of these reports are sometimes left by the mail-room staff on employees' desks, where they may sit for days if the recipients are out of town. They are visible to anyone who walks by, including the janitorial staff.
Given the increasing frequency of identity theft, this use of Social Security numbers seems to me to be downright dangerous. It seems to me that the company could just assign us random numbers that wouldn't identify us.
A: Yes. It's dangerous.
Government officials, management consultants and privacy experts agree the company is making a potentially costly mistake by circulating Social Security numbers so freely because identity theft has become so rampant. According to Beth Grossman, manager of the identity-theft program at the Federal Trade Commission, reports of suspected credit theft to Trans Union LLC, one of the nation's largest credit reporting firms, rose from 35,000 in 1992 to about 500,000 in 1997.
Grossman said criminals who obtain a person's name, Social Security number and date of birth are able to open checking accounts, get credit cards and driver's licenses, and buy cars or jewelry in the victim's name. That can damage the victims' credit, even forcing them into bankruptcy. She said government officials have found that the illicit source of data in many cases is the workplace, with co-workers selling information or making it available to criminals. "Any place information is all stored together is at risk," Grossman said.
Beth Givens, director of the San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, said company officials sometimes mistakenly view using Social Security numbers as an easy and convenient way to track workers, but their naivete can put their employees at risk. "I call what that company is doing information malpractice," Givens said.
When identity theft hits a company, it can cause enormous problems. At the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, a state water utility, an international crime ring somehow obtained information about its 241 employees, managing to steal the identities of 34 of them, or more than one-tenth of the work force. The case is being investigated by the state's attorney's office and the FBI, but officials say it is still unclear how the leak occurred.
"We've had a big problem with it--a major problem," said Kathryn Ovide, director of the agency's executive department. Ovide said employees have spent hours trying to straighten out their credit ratings and deal with the consequences of refused credit and home refinancings that collapsed. She said the agency's internal auditor and personnel officials have spent months dealing with the repercussions.
Management consultant William S. Hubbartt, author of "The New Battle Over Workplace Privacy," suggested that the worker draft a memo to management outlining the problem and urging that a new employee identifier be used. He said some employers may resist making the change because it might cause bureaucratic problems. But, he added, a company's reputation could be injured if it become known as a place that cannot be entrusted with confidential data.
For more information on identity theft, visit the World Wide Web sites www.consumer.gov/idtheft and www.privacyrights.org, or call the FTC's hot line at 1-877-IDTHEFT.
Q: At the consulting company where I work, my employer gives out performance-based bonuses just before Christmas every year. I suspect I'll receive a substantial amount. Here's the problem: I'm actively looking for a new job and hope to get an offer any day now. If I am offered a job and decide to leave my current employer before bonuses are passed out, am I still entitled to the bonus or part of the bonus? Would it be bad form to ask for the bonus even though I am leaving? I feel I've been a good employee, and my performance reviews have reflected that.
A: Check out the company's bonus-plan documents, said Mike Emig, who leads the performance management and compensation practice for Deloitte & Touche LLP's Mid-Atlantic region. Emig said most companies have written policies outlining the terms under which bonuses are granted.
But Emig advised the writer it's probably wiser to stick around a bit to be sure to get the bonus. Because unless there is a specific written agreement between the worker and the employer, the company may not feel obligated to give money to a worker who has departed. "It would be foolhardy not to hang on" to get the holiday cash, said Emig, who said that in some cases year-end bonuses become a "handcuff" for workers.
Year-end bonuses are becoming more common among employers. According to the Bureau of National Affairs' Human Resource Report, about 20 percent of companies surveyed now report that they give them out, up from 14 percent in 1996.
In some cases, when prospective employers are desperate to hire, they will offer to match the bonus to get the worker to start sooner. Sometimes that sum becomes in effect a hiring bonus. On the other hand, however, a savvy job hopper can double-dip by swooping up the year-end bonus from one employer while negotiating a separate hiring bonus on the other end.
"It's a matter of timing," Emig said. "If you have negotiating strength, you'll have more options."