JITE v38n1 - The Dynamics of Privacy Regulation: A Conceptual Model for HRD and Organizations

Volume 38, Number 1
Fall 2000

The Dynamics of Privacy Regulation: A Conceptual Model for HRD and Organizations

Virginia W. Kupritz
The University of Tennessee

The study presents a conceptual model of privacy regulation operating in the workplace through environmental, behavioral, and social mechanisms. The study synthesizes extensive environment and behavior (EB) research on privacy for workforce training and development. The application of EB theory to human resource development (HRD) needs allows the disciplines to examine privacy from a multidisciplinary perspective. Privacy, a long scarce commodity for most office workers, is becoming even less available as corporations limit personal space in favor of open areas assumed to facilitate task flow and communication for supporting teamwork. This study intends to alert and direct HRD professionals and organizations to search for a balance that allows groups of individuals to remain private enough to be productive, while enhancing their ability to communicate and collaborate with their teammates. Productivity may suffer if privacy needs are not met. The model represents a first step in providing HRD professionals and organizations with a template they can use systematically to examine the range of privacy issues that may be pertinent to their particular situation.

Why HRD Professionals and Organizations Need to Pay Attention to Privacy Issues

The broad framework of privacy mechanisms presented in this study is necessary to provide HRD professionals and organizations with a balanced perspective of how privacy is regulated in the workplace. No one mechanism can be singled out as a top priority in workforce training and development because privacy needs of individuals and work groups depend upon the particular circumstances and situations at that time. In one situation, helping trainees develop a personal action plan that recognizes privacy obstacles as well as opportunities that environmental mechanisms can provide may be the most effective means to support learned behavior on-the-job. In another situation, opportunities for behavioral mechanisms to support learned behavior on-the-job may need to be included in the action plan because the actual physical environment is not supportive. Still in another situation, a training program that incorporates social mechanisms regulating privacy through institutional policies and social norms may be more appropriate to support learned behavior on-the-job.

Even though HRD professionals do not have control over the physical work environment, they need to understand the vital role that environmental mechanisms play in regulating privacy for important reasons. First, understanding the ramifications of the physical environment on privacy is crucial for helping trainees develop personal action plans that include potential physical obstacles and opportunities for privacy, and helps trainees systematically think through which aspects of the training realistically can be used within these physical constraints. Action planning identifies organizational constraints (such as privacy limitations) and opportunities to perform learned behavior on-the-job that allow trainees to return to work with a realistic and workable action plan. This activity helps workers maximize their opportunities to perform efficiently on-the-job and starts the important process of training transfer (Cheek & Campbell, 1994). From the larger organizational perspective, action planning provides a mechanism to give people some control over decisions affecting their work. Research has demonstrated that worker control over their work environments -- both actual and perceived -- can enhance physical health and offset the stressing effects of heavy workloads and a fast work pace (O'Neill & Evans, 2000).

Second, understanding the ramifications of the physical environment on privacy is crucial for designing a training environment that simulates privacy conditions psychologically and physically in the application environment. Instructional design models stress that transfer is more likely to occur when learning conditions approximate the application environment (Clark & Voogel, 1985; Laker, 1990). The need for trainers to approximate the actual conditions created by design limitations and design opportunities holds true for any training experience, be it a noisy office environment or an extreme environment such as a military maneuver in desert-like conditions. For example, O'Neill and Evans (2000) staged interruptions during training as trainees practiced certain tasks in order to approximate office conditions these learners encounter on-the-job. Simply put, sound training may not occur in a quiet atmosphere if in fact the actual workplace is noisy and filled with distractions and interruptions, any more than military training would occur in jungle-like terrain for desert warfare (see the National Simulation Center, 1999). The physical environment is not under the control of the trainer but the conditions under which the training experience occurs is.

HRD initiatives that take privacy issues into account support HRD's mission to provide the best opportunity to perform efficiently on-the-job. Corporate America continues to annually spend billions of dollars on training, much of which fails to transfer or is extinguished over time (Broad & Newstrom, 1992; Foxon, 1995; Georges, 1988; Grabowski, 1983; Kelly, 1982). This failure to transfer particularly happens with training in problem solving, management development, and interpersonal skills (Foxon, 1995).1 HRD has recognized for some time that this failure points to the importance of taking into account the dimensions of the larger system -- the organizational context -- when training is planned, developed, and evaluated (Gilley, 1997; Kaufman, 1997; Richey, 1992; Tannenbaum & Yuki, 1992). The physical setting is part of this organizational context that can impact the ultimate success or failure of the training intervention (Kupritz 1999, 2000).

Reddy (2000) determined that workplace design facilitating as well as impeding privacy was the top organizational issue impacting training transfer for office workers with supervisory duties. These employees participated in a training workshop for supervisory skills within a 4-month period and were now on-the-job. Conversations with M. Lawer (personal communication, September 30, 1998), a training specialist at a major university, pointed to performance difficulties attributable to office design that is unsupportive of privacy needs:

Quite frequently, in at least half of the [training and development] workshops I present, the discussion turns to difficulties attributable to workplace design. For instance, in a recent workshop on delegation skills, a supervisor cited her office's physical layout as an obstacle; in her opinion, the extremely open nature of the office makes it difficult to give effective feedback to employees, as other employees as well as students can hear all that is said. Similar stories, detailing the effects of physical design on routine work activities, are recounted weekly.

Recognizing the important roles that environmental, behavioral, and social mechanisms play in regulating privacy is in the best interest of HRD and organizations. Although some privacy inevitably will be lost in the transition from individual to teamwork, a total loss of privacy is detrimental to productivity. Privacy problems remain overlooked and misunderstood as corporations continue to limit personal space in favor of open areas assumed to support teamwork.

Privacy Problems in the Workplace

The radical transformation of today's workplace has led to changes in the physical surroundings to support new ways of working. Workplaces must be reinvented as work patterns change. Corporations are failing to address the privacy needs of office workers in the drive to facilitate task flow and communication for teamwork. This could mitigate the efficiency of the individual worker, which in turn may impede a team's efficiency. Work team effectiveness depends upon the successful management of group-organizational boundaries, the corresponding territorial control, and a supportive physical environment (Sundstrom & Altman, 1989; Sundstrom, De Meuse, & Futrell, 1990). Territorial control is one of the boundary-regulating mechanisms that individuals and groups use to regulate privacy needs and will be discussed in a later section.

Open-plan cubicles, primarily intended to increase communication, often have had the opposite effect because of privacy problems. That is, people actually communicate less when they cannot control communication (Bencivenga, 1998). A pervasive mismatch exists between the universal privacy need for distraction-free work and the reality that most people work in distraction-porous (i.e., open-plan) workspaces (Brill, Keable, & Fabiniak, 1999). A body of environment and behavior literature documents the pitfalls organizations face when they make design alterations to increase communication and task flow without taking privacy needs into account. Privacy research during the past 30 years reveals that inability to hold confidential conversations, lack of control over accessibility, inability to avoid crowding, lack of autonomy over supervision, and distractions and interruptions can all contribute to negative effects on job performance and satisfaction (Braeger, Bauman, Heerwagen, & Ruland, 2000; Brill et al., 1999; Brill, Margulis, Konar, & BOSTI, 1984-1985; Brookes & Kaplan, 1972; Crouch & Nimran, 1989; Ellis & Duffy, 1980; Hedge, 1982; Herbert, 1980; Kupritz, 1998, 1999; Marans & Spreckelmeyer, 1982; Sundstrom, Burt, & Kamp, 1980).

Cakir (1994) determined that noise distraction in particular was one of the major complaints in the work environment. Other research found noise could add to job-related stress (Karasek & Thorelli, 1990; Paul, 1996; Sundstrom, Town, Rice, Osborn, & Brill, 1994). Northwestern Life Insurance Company determined that the incidence of stress doubled from 1982 to 1990 through a cross-sectional survey of American workers (Paul, 1996). The stress test monitored responses to statements including "employees have little or no privacy" (p. 6). Stress levels were high for nearly 50% of the workers. Seven out of ten responses indicated that job stress lowers worker productivity. BOSTI Associates, in two waves of research from 1984 to 1985 and 1994 to 1999, determined that accommodating privacy needs in the workplace had the strongest impact on performance and satisfaction (Brill et al., 1984-1985; Brill et al., 1999). The 1984 to 1985 research examined the effect of the physical environment on performance and satisfaction for approximately 10,000 office workers in corporate and governmental organizations. The 1994 to 1999 research examined the effect of the physical environment on performance and satisfaction with a new database, representing some 30,000 office workers in corporate and governmental organizations.

Approximating privacy conditions during the training experience and recognizing privacy needs of trainees requires a basic understanding about the experience of privacy and how it is regulated. Privacy is not a uni-dimensional concept with an easily identifiable class of empirical referents. The next section examines the dialectic nature of privacy as a boundary-regulating process.

Concept of Privacy

The present study defines privacy as the regulation of interaction between the self and others and/or environmental stimuli (Kupritz, 1998). Speech or conversational privacy refers to a person's ability to hold conversations inside a workspace without being overheard and understood by people outside the workspace. Acoustical privacy includes speech privacy and isolation from environmental background noise. Visual privacy is defined as isolation from unwanted observation. Visual and acoustical regulation of privacy helps to maintain an optimal level of social contact that people need; dissatisfaction occurs from being in situations that deviate from what a person considers optimal. The visual and acoustical isolation supplied by the physical design of an environment typically is called architectural privacy (see Cavanaugh, Farrell, & Hirtle, 1962; Sundstrom, 1986; Sundstrom et al., 1980; Sundstrom, Herbert, & Brown, 1982).

Classic privacy theories propose that one of privacy's main functions is to help maintain an individual's self-identity by creating personal boundaries (Altman, 1975; Westin, 1970). The later work of Sundstrom and Altman (1989) and Sundstrom et al. (1990) document the importance of establishing personal boundaries, both individual and group. Their research suggests that organizational effectiveness depends as much upon organizational context boundaries (i.e., physical and psychosocial) as it does upon the internal processes of work team development. Uses of the term privacy in work environments generally reflect the regulation of interaction, which encompasses retreat from incoming stimulation (generated by people and the environment) and information management; that is, outgoing information. People use their control over information and their ability to regulate interaction to achieve a temporary limited exchange with other people (Sundstrom, 1986).

Altman (1976, 1977) has described privacy as a boundary-regulating process that is dialectic in nature. Privacy regulation operates as an opening/closing process by which individuals and groups vary in the degree to which they are accessible to others. It is a cultural universal: what differs is not whether or not the need for privacy is present but the ways in which that need is met or the ways in which privacy is regulated. Regulating mechanisms operate in different combinations as a social system. For example, Sundstrom, Town, Brown, Forman, and McGee (1982) have determined that privacy needs appear to differ across job types with particular job demands for confidentiality and concentration, and they cannot be prioritized on a high to low continuum based upon job rank and complexity.

In particular, assigning private office spaces to higher management positions should not be based upon job rank and complexity alone; more is at stake than reinforcing organizational hierarchy through status demarcation. Privacy regulating mechanisms work together in different combinations and depend upon the particular privacy needs at that time, what is available, and what is acceptable (Justa & Golan, 1977). Altman (1975) has argued that the most basic privacy need is to optimize social contact (with both incoming stimulation and outgoing information) and to avoid crowding. Research findings suggest that the next need may concern mental concentration and the avoidance of distraction, interruption, and noise (Sundstrom, et al., 1982). Where neither crowding nor concentration poses problems, autonomy and conversational privacy may become salient as the third need.

Privacy research conducted over the past 30 years validates that privacy is an important concern for office workers that should not be overlooked when addressing the needs of an organization and its employees. The following section attempts to guide HRD professionals and organizations through the range of privacy issues that may be pertinent to their particular situation.

Conceptual Model of Privacy Regulation

The theoretical construct for the study holds that environmental, behavioral, and social mechanisms operating within the context of the larger culture are employed to regulate privacy within work environments. The model depicted in Figure 1 specifies the means each mechanism employs to regulate privacy and the relationships by which the variables are linked. Environmental, behavioral, and social mechanisms operate through the medium of culture. Although accommodating the overall cultural context for privacy is not the focus of this study, its importance should not be overlooked. Cultural context is addressed in a later section of this paper. The following summary examines the role environmental, behavioral, and social mechanisms play in privacy regulation and their interrelationships.

Figure 1
Conceptual model of privacy regulation.

Conceptual model of privacy regulation

Environmental mechanisms

Environmental mechanisms are the physical resources that provide opportunities for individual and group privacy. Figure 2 describes the physical resources available for regulating interpersonal accessibility and for signaling desires for more or less social interaction. These physical elements also allow workers themselves to regulate privacy through their own locales as territorial markers. (The interrelationship between territorial behavior and physical elements, devised or displayed by workers to regulate privacy, is discussed in a later section entitled behavioral mechanisms.) Poor privacy conditions are created when these physical resources are absent.

Both adequate and inadequate conditions for privacy should be addressed in training. For example, trainers can simulate uncrowded or crowded situations that approximate the density of the trainees' actual work environment. Mock set-ups of workspaces with adequate or inadequate sound absorption can be incorporated into the training experience. When the trainees' actual privacy conditions are adequate, the structured training classroom environment should suffice because it is free from visual and acoustical distractions and interruptions. On the other hand, sound training may not occur in a quiet atmosphere if in fact the actual workplace is noisy and filled with distractions and interruptions. Trainers can simulate visual and acoustical distractions and interruptions by introducing pedestrian traffic, incorporating background noises (e.g., office equipment) and conversations, and staging interruptions. The conceptual framework presented here can be used to approximate privacy conditions that are pertinent to the trainees' situation and to help trainees determine physical obstacles and opportunities for privacy to later support learned behavior on-the-job.

Figure 2
Environmental mechanisms used to regulate privacy and summary of
research suggestions.

Environmental mechanisms used to regulate privacy and summary of research suggestions

The physical resources available for regulating privacy are comprised of barriers and field characteristics:

Barriers regulate privacy physically and symbolically through walls, screens, and objects. Research evidence is fairly consistent in linking visual and acoustical privacy with physical enclosure (see the review by Sundstrom, 1986; also Zeisel, 1984). Visual and acoustical barriers, serving as physical boundaries, allow an individual or group to act "out of role" occasionally or to discuss confidential information, and thereby maintain psychological boundaries (Sundstrom et al., 1980). Also, visual and acoustical barriers are needed for personal regeneration, especially in situations where the work is stressful and high-pressured (Becker & Steele, 1995). Private spaces are needed for workers to get out of the mainstream of activities for awhile, to withdraw and "let their batteries recharge."

Research findings from the early 1980s suggest that workers across ranks gain their greatest sense of privacy by enclosure in individual offices, with floor-to-ceiling solid walls and accompanied by a door. Research findings from the later 1980s demonstrated that the effects of partition height appear to be mediated by the number of partitions enclosing the workspace (Brill et al., 1984-1985; Sundstrom et al., 1980; Sundstrom, et al., 1982).

The small number of workplace characteristics examined during the 1980s was expanded during the 1990s in an attempt to model interrelationships between a broader range of workspace characteristics and privacy, among other variables. Kupritz (1998) identified having a workspace enclosed in 5'-0" high partitions, 7'-0" high partitions, or floor-to-ceiling solid walls, a door, a conference room, and a partition window with mini-blinds in the worker's cubicle with regulating privacy for aerospace engineers. However, it appears the engineers judged barriers, such as walls or partitions, more in terms of their perceived acoustical property for regulating privacy than for the particular height of the barrier, a visual property. The findings suggested that enclosing the workspace with floor-to-ceiling solid walls may not be necessary to achieve acoustical and visual privacy for workers. Later studies by Kupritz (1999, 2000) identified design features perceived as regulating privacy for an intergenerational workforce. Findings determined that older and younger workers generally appear to associate similar design features with regulating privacy. Cohorts, in particular, associate having a workspace with floor-to-ceiling solid walls, a door, minimal traffic routed through the worker's area, having the workspace located away from the main traffic flow, and having adequate lighting with regulating privacy.

Kupritz (2000) has further determined that even though older and younger workers often associate similar design features with regulating privacy, they generally assign different weightings of importance to design features perceived to regulate privacy. This suggests that even though older workers may not need special design adaptations, they do seem to need different architectural privacy features to provide them with the same opportunity as their younger counterparts to perform efficiently. Trainers should be sensitive to the diverse privacy needs of older and younger workers that may surface during the training experience.

Trainees also may bring up the symbolic value of privacy that workers attach to physical elements of the workplace during training. For example, status barriers (e.g., floor-to-ceiling solid walls) contribute to the symbolic value of privacy for the worker and the client or customer as well, depending upon the setting (Brandt, 1987; Konar, Sundstrom, Brady, Mandel, & Rice, 1982; Zalesny & Farace, 1987). HRD professionals and organizations should consider not only the functional aspects of the space but also the symbolic value attached to the space itself.

Field characteristics regulate privacy by perceptually altering the physical context through shape, size, orientation, and environmental conditions (i.e., light intensity, sound, air quality, etc.). Trainers should encourage trainees to look for ways to manipulate these field characteristics for privacy to support learned behavior on-the-job. Field characteristics evolve from the layout of barriers. The shape of a setting mainly affects visual and perceptual relationships. For example, corners in a square space are easier to see and define separately from one another than parts of a round space (Ziesel, 1984). The relative effects of size on privacy, such as spatial density, can create crowded or uncrowded conditions (Oldham, 1988).

Positioning in space, or orientation, also provides opportunities for individual and group privacy. Kupritz (1998) has found that engineers rank certain field characteristics, in particular orientation of the workspace, as more important in regulating privacy than barriers such as walls, partitions, or doors. Having minimal traffic routed through the worker's area and the workspace located away from the main traffic flow are important field characteristics used to regulate privacy, as identified by the engineers. These characteristics deal with orientation of the workspace and stress the importance of functional distance. Functional distance, or the likelihood of people encountering each other, is contingent upon the placement or positioning of physical elements in the environment (Zeisel, 1984). The Kupritz study also points out that incidental meeting areas (e.g., coffee pots, mail areas, restroom facilities, and exit doors), in addition to pedestrian traffic, contribute to the acoustical and visual distractions the engineers are experiencing from the main traffic flow. Although incidental meeting areas are crucial for informal learning, they also can create privacy problems. Trainees can identify incidental meeting areas to avoid when privacy is needed as well as incidental meeting areas to seek when serendipitous communication and interaction are desired. Trainees also can explore ways to adjust both psychological distances (i.e., cues for immediacy) and the angle of fixed and semi-fixed design features (e.g., partitions and moveable furniture and accessories) away from their line of vision for privacy (see Mehrabian, 1976).

Lighting is an environmental condition used to regulate privacy (see Kupritz 1999, 2000). Trainees can explore opportunities to obtain adequate lighting on-the-job. For example, adding a simple desk lamp can increase task lighting if general lighting conditions are not adequate. Trainees also can vary the light intensity surrounding the workspace with higher light levels on the primary work surface and lower levels for overall ambient light levels. Varying the levels of light intensity in this way can increase informality and reduce status distinctions to create a more relaxed climate, all of which can increase the worker's sense of perceived privacy (Goodrich, 1982).

Sound, also an environmental condition, facilitates or impedes privacy regulation through environmental background noise and conversational privacy. This is evidenced in white noise acoustically engineered through electronic sound masking systems and introduced in open-plan offices to improve privacy (Herbert, 1980). Conversely, the intrusion of office noise impedes privacy regulation. As stated earlier, noise distraction is a major complaint in the workplace that can contribute to stress and negative effects on job performance and satisfaction. Trainees are better prepared to cope with these distractions through sound training that approximates the actual conditions created by noisy environments and action planning. Such training helps trainees identify physical constraints and opportunities for privacy to support learned behavior on-the-job. This also gives workers some sense of control over their environments.

As rare as privacy is in today's workplace, it becomes even more problematic as we experience the physiological changes of aging. The diminished ability to use binaural hearing to distinguish between varying acoustics renders older learners more susceptible to acoustical distractions (Clark, 1995; Coren, 1994). Coren (1994) proposes that this diminished ability is particularly pertinent to the aging baby boomers in the workforce and urges corporations to find new mechanisms to control noise. The negative impact of noise on job-related stress further compounds this problem (Karasek & Thorelli, 1990; Sundstrom et al., 1994). Trainers need to pay attention to the diverse privacy needs of different age groups participating in the training experience.

Research conducted in Europe indicates that olfactory context mediated through air quality, another environmental condition, may influence perceptions of visual and acoustical privacy (G. Davis, personal communication, April 5, 1990). That is, olfactory context appears to cause certain stimuli, such as visual and auditory, to be experienced and responded to differently. A growing body of evidence suggests that pleasant fragrances may influence certain behaviors (Baron & Thomley, 1994). The Japanese Kajima Corporation opened a building in Tokyo utilizing "piped-in aromas" to increase productivity and creativity of its employees ("Japanese Company Hopes Idea Makes Good Scents," 1989, p. A18). Perhaps taken to an extreme, this emphasis on quality of airflow acknowledges the multidimensional reality of environmental conditions as privacy regulators.

Behavioral mechanisms

Behavioral mechanisms are the overt and cognitive behaviors people use to modify the environment or to modify themselves in order to conform to the environment. The individual and group role in the work environment is not passive. People actively anticipate events so they can make decisions about behavior. Figure 3 portrays an overview of these mechanisms. The conceptual framework presented in the figure attempts to help HRD professionals and organizations better understand the active role individuals and work groups play in managing privacy. This understanding promotes a healthy respect and tolerance for what people do to regulate privacy and to combat stress.

Figure 3
Behavioral mechanisms used to regulate privacy and summary of research

Behavioral mechanisms used to regulate privacy and summary of research suggestions

Overt behaviors

Overt behaviors are used to regulate privacy through the use of personal space, verbal/ nonverbal behavior, and territorial behavior (Altman, 1975, 1976; Altman & Chemers, 1980; Davis & Altman, 1976). Sundstrom (1985) illustrates how workers use personal space and nonverbal behavior to regulate privacy in work environments:

Partners in conversation seek an optimal psychological distance, which is adjusted through interpersonal proximity, eye-contact, and others behaviors. Applied to the work environment, this theory implies that conversants are more comfortable in seating arrangements that allow them to adjust their distance (or other cues of immediacy) to suit their preferences. (p. 184)

Altman and Chemers (1980) define territoriality as a behavioral mechanism that individuals and groups use to establish and control privacy through territorial markers. These markers delineate boundaries. Verbal and nonverbal modes of communication are used as territorial markers to regulate privacy. Personal space, or interpersonal distancing, is used as a communication tool to maintain an appropriate or desired level of contact. It is an important means of privacy regulation that continually changes with circumstances. Paraverbal communication cues used to regulate privacy are described as "letting people know our feelings regardless of the content of what we say" (Altman & Chemers, 1980, p. 79). Nonverbal communication cues are defined as the body language used to communicate the desire for privacy through posture, head gestures, opening/closing of the arms, smiles/frowns, orientation of the body, and so forth.

Altman and Chemers (1980) point out that people also use objects and areas within the environment to indicate availability to others. These physical elements enable workers themselves to regulate privacy through their own locales. That is, individuals and groups may devise or display physical elements to delineate boundaries for privacy. The conceptual model depicted in Figure 1 illustrates the interrelationship that exists between territorial behavior and physical elements. Workers can increase their sense of control over the environment and others' behaviors by establishing workspace territories (Wollman, Kelly, & Bordens, 1994).

People position themselves around physical elements, such as doors or partitions, through the subtle manipulation of visual access and exposure. This overt behavior allows the individual to selectively inhibit or facilitate the flow of interpersonal information for privacy. People do not only position themselves around a fixed feature of design to regulate privacy; they may also manipulate the physical element itself if flexibility allows. Accommodating the worker's ability to manipulate physical elements in work environments is far more important than originally thought. O'Neill (1994) has determined that the adjustability of furniture and storage elements may contribute more to achieving privacy than the actual workspace enclosure. This flexibility enhances the worker's sense of control over the environment and environmental satisfaction (O'Neill, 1993; O'Neal & Carayon, 1993).

Cognitive Behaviors

Cognitive behaviors of adaptation, perceived control, and stimulus screening are integral parts of privacy regulation. Individuals change adaptation-levels with continued exposure by adjusting their psychological standard of reference (Helson, 1964; Sundstrom, 1985). By so doing, they re-adjust perceived quality of life and quality of work-life standards. Hedge (1982) has documented that out of 649 employees, 51% of managerial, 53% of technical, and 64% of clerical workers has "grown used to interruptions" (p. 533). Sundstrom (1985) illustrates adaptation to the invasion of acoustical privacy:

For instance, an office worker may find an office noisy at first but after awhile his standard of reference may change as he comes to regard the office as less noisy. Additionally, the office worker may welcome the benefit of "masking noise" to keep his/her conversations private, a "learned" response to environments. (p. 179)

The psychological/physiological processes of adaptation, however, have potential limitations. Baum, Singer, and Baum (1981) caution that regular and prolonged exposure to stress may require far more adaptive responses over time than temporary exposure to stress (see also Sundstrom, 1985). The cultural processes of group adaptation to accepted social practices, mores, rules, and roles in an organization are patterned by how work groups interrelate, adapting to different positions. This facet reflects the premise that people and organizations change and develop ways to adjust group-organization boundaries over time as they adapt to the social context (Sundstrom & Altman, 1989; Sundstrom et al., 1990). Adapting to the social context depends upon the particular situation and circumstances, sometimes creating degrees of openness for exchange and interaction and other times creating degrees of separation and inaccessibility for exchange.

The need for individual and group choice and control -- both actual and perceived -- is tied to the psychological functions of privacy. To reiterate, autonomy (i.e., the power to control and regulate one's life) has been identified as an important function of privacy in the service of helping to maintain self-identify (Altman, 1975). O'Neill and Evans (2000) determined that giving trainees more control over their environments by training them to reposition adjustable workstations for ergonomic comfort reduced stress and enhanced motivational performance. The early research of Davis and Altman (1976) observed that perceived control and sense of responsibility for the physical environment appeared to be lowest in workplaces used by the greatest numbers of people.

These findings have ramifications in open-plan workplaces where privacy is limited. People not only respond to dangers or threats that have materialized; they are equally affected by expectations of these events and past experiences (Baum et al., 1981). The degree of perceived lack of control over the environment can evoke stress. The adverse effects of job-related stress are well documented (Kahn & Byosiere, 1992; Karasek & Theorell, 1990).

Mehrabian (1976) theorizes that privacy is regulated through stimulus screening of the environment, a cognitive behavior. He defines stimulus screening as "how much a person characteristically screens out the less relevant parts of his environment, thereby effectively reducing the environmental load and his arousal state" (p. 24). Mehrabian describes environmental load as the amount of information perceived in the environment in the form of stimuli. The more environmental stimuli emotionally responded to, the greater the arousal state and vice versa. Individuals differ in their ability to screen environmental conditions (Baum et al., 1981; Becker, 1981; Mehrabian, 1976). That is, individuals who utilize lower levels of stimulus screening typically have higher privacy needs. Trainers can help trainees explore ways to compensate for individual screening needs and search for areas of design flexibility on-the-job that may enhance individual and group control over the work environment. In particular, opportunities that semi-fixed and fixed-design features can provide for flexibility should be examined during the development of individual action plans.

Social mechanisms

Social mechanisms are the policy and social supports that organizations can use to provide for individual and group privacy needs. Policy and social supports, as institutional practices, communicate availability or unavailability to others through the established customs, rules, and norms that are readily understood by most people in an organization. These supports influence the way individuals and work groups identify, interpret, and use the social and physical aspects of the workspace to regulate privacy. The application and enforcement of policies and norms on members of an organizational system through social control allows for "some predictability or patterns to what people will and will not do there" (Steele, 1973, p. 94). Just as policy and social supports can impact boundary regulation, successful boundary management may be critical to the development of group cohesion, group norms, and group processes related to task performance (Sundstrom & Altman, 1989). The creation and embedding of social mechanisms into an organization is both a teaching and learning process, often based upon the explicit teaching by the founder and later leaders as well as seasoned members of the group. As shared assumptions about customs, rules, and norms come to be taken for granted and thereby drop out of the conscious awareness of members of the organization, the organizational culture and subcultures become very difficult to change unless one changes the people in the group (Schein, 1992). The perceived reality of an organization's culture and subcultures are grounded in the autonomy of individuals and groups to accept or not to accept policy and social norms established by the organization (Harding & Livesay, 1984).

Policy and social supports, depicted in Figure 4, facilitate or impede privacy regulation through the structuring of activities in space and time. The conceptual framework presented identifies ways to use policy and social supports for privacy to support learned behavior on-the-job. Individuals and groups experience the work environment by altering the ways in which things are structured, such as time and movement patterns, a process of organizing that occurs continually in all organizations (Becker, 1981; Schein, 1992). Some organizations are beginning to schedule space-time use of offices to reflect daily work activities. This structuring of activities in space and time results in a mix of settings that individuals and groups experience each day: places for individual or group privacy, communication, team interaction, research and computer work, teleconferencing, and so forth (Brill, 1993; Haworth, Inc., 1995). The following examination combines earlier research with current anecdotal evidence validating the impact that policy and social supports appear to have on privacy. Minimal research exists on social mechanisms that organizations can use to regulate privacy for today's workforce. The anecdotal evidence is included in this study in an attempt to provide a balanced interpretation of mechanisms used to regulate privacy.

Formal Policy Supports

Formal policy supports are explicit rules that outline work activities considered appropriate and inappropriate by the organization. Forward thinking companies are developing formal policies that include how to manage privacy better in organizations. Nortel provides a training manual on office protocol for some 9000 employees, including acceptable conversation levels (Cohen, 1998). Bencivenga (1998) urges human resource professionals to train employees on appropriate ways to work in today's new office environments and to help employees establish rules or protocols for the workplace.

This includes the need to train employees on acceptable conversation levels and how to deal with interruptions. LeMay, corporate communications director of an architectural firm, explains:

You can't take people and pull them out of the environment they are in now and drop them in without any explanation or protocols…. It won't work. A lot of companies say "We tried the open office and it didn't work." It probably didn't work because they didn't set up rules and protocols about how employees should use that space, compared to the old space. (Bencivenga, 1998, p.75-76)

Findings from O'Neill and Evans (2000) support this notion. Training workers on how to use their adjustable workstation designs can reduce stress and enhance motivational performance. Some institutions of higher learning also are beginning to offer training and development workshops for employees on how they can manage privacy better through cubicle etiquette (UTK Office of Human Resources Management, 1997). In addition, institutional policies impacting privacy are now reaching the consumer and client end as well. Privacy officers, a growing corporate need, are establishing institutional policies with the goal to protect consumers and clients from privacy invasion on the Internet and corporations from lawsuits and public relation disasters (Hopper, 2000).

Figure 4
Social mechanisms used to regulate privacy and summary of research

Social mechanisms used to regulate privacy and summary of research suggestion

Informal Policy Supports

Informal policy supports are implicit rules that influence activities considered appropriate and inappropriate by the organization. These policy supports define levels of environmental ambiguity and flexibility (Becker, 1981). Justa and Golan (1977) have identified informal policy supports that facilitate privacy regulation: a well-defined access policy, ability to exercise control over thermal and aural environments, individual choice of décor, and autonomy over confidential files.

Social Supports

Social supports are informal social norms that implicitly cue what people should and should not do in a given work setting (Steele, 1986). Steele illustrates spatial behavior norms along with norms referring to specific items or setups in a workplace, such as whether or not an office door should remain open or closed while the occupant is there. Spatial behavior norms in a setting implicitly cue behaviors such as how loudly or softly the worker should talk on the telephone or to people in the workplace and when it is acceptable or not acceptable to enter someone's workplace. Justa and Golan (1977) identify similar social supports that facilitate privacy regulation: consensus on the meaning of an enclosed office as the occupant's territory, a secretary to screen calls and visitors, low noise and low density from others (e.g., accepted conversational and density levels), and the level of discretion on the part of others. The distinction between what constitutes a policy versus a social support becomes blurred as institutional practices begin to influence social norms through policies to regulate privacy.

The model presented in this section posits a comprehensive framework of privacy regulation and attempts to guide HRD professionals and organizations through the range of privacy issues they should address when training is planned, developed, and evaluated. The final section examines the larger cultural context within which privacy regulation occurs.

Accommodating a Cultural Context

Privacy regulation occurs on two levels, the organizational level and the larger cultural level. Although accommodating the context of the larger culture for privacy is not the focus of this study, its importance should not be overlooked. Culture encompasses a pattern of shared assumptions, shared and learned by a group, that gives meaning to the group. These are socially ascribed meanings that provide rules of behavior. Rules are shared by most members of the group; some rules are shared by some members of the group and some rules are idiosyncratic to the individual (Harding & Livesay, 1984; Schein, 1992; Woods, 1975). This perspective emphasizes a perceptual approach to cultural theory which is concerned with the subjective and intersubjective meanings that develop between people. Subjective meaning and interaction are grounded in the autonomy of individuals, but they are conditioned by the pattern of social systems at work in the larger culture (Harding & Livesay, 1984). Applied to privacy regulation, not only do institutional designs and practices along with individual and group behavior impede and facilitate privacy, but individuals and groups bring to their work environments the deeper values and assumptions they share about privacy, conditioned by the larger culture.

Bates (1964), Westin (1970), and Altman (1975) consider the experience of privacy being channeled through culture. This experience is outside of cultural awareness. Privacy regulation is very much a matter of prior cultural learning which organizations cannot afford to ignore. Haworth, Inc. (1995) has projected that 85% of the net increase in the American workforce will consist of women, African-Americans, Asians, and other minorities by the year 2000. This cultural diversity in the American workforce coupled with the globalization of what were once national industries or firms directly impacts privacy regulation in work environments. The meaning and clarity of privacy regulators, such as partitions, may differ across cultures just as they may differ across intraoffice situations (Justa & Golan, 1977). The experience of privacy most fully responds to the societal culture; it reflects deeper values and assumptions held in the larger culture (Hall, 1959, 1966, 1977). As stated earlier, the need for privacy is ever present, yet the ways in which that need is met and the ways in which privacy is regulated may differ. In one culture privacy intrusion may occur when speech is interrupted and yet a person can stand close by without interrupting, whereas in another culture even entering the visual field of another person is interpreted as a bid for attention and is seen as an interruption. (See the pioneer research of Hall, 1966.)

HRD professionals and organizations need to pay attention to the impact of the larger cultural level on privacy regulation and also to the cultural contexting patterns affecting privacy issues. Contexting is the perceptual and cognitive process of recognizing, giving significance to and incorporating contextual cues to interpret the meaning of a situation. Hall (1966, 1977, 1983) theorizes that cultures operate on a continuum of high to low contexting patterns. High context cultures tend to rely more on implicit messages conveyed in a setting to communicate meaning, whereas low context cultures tend to rely more on explicit messages to communicate meaning, such as written forms of communication.

For example, Hall (1996) identified Japanese culture as high context and American culture as lower context. Clarke and Lipp (1998) evaluated cultural clashes erupting between United States-based Japanese subsidiaries. The American sales managers considered the Japanese sales managers to be too slow in making decisions and too quiet in meetings, whereas the Japanese considered the Americans to be too impatient and to rely too much on written communication. Clarke and Lipp determined that the larger group meeting was not conducive to the privacy needs of the Japanese to discuss sensitive matters confidentially before making a decision public to the American sales managers. Misunderstanding the Japanese needs for privacy and the different contexting patterns of Japanese and American cultures to communicate in the decision-making process contributed to the loss of a multimillion-dollar contract (See also Hall, 1983 and Schein, 1992 for an examination of the cultural variability of temporal perceptions.)

Sean-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, Inc. (1998) astutely points out:

Merging two corporate cultures from the same country with the same language and traditions is challenge enough. That challenge can be compounded when differing country cultures and norms are added to the equation. What might be seen as healthy assertive "bias for action" in one society may be seen as rude, offensive and inappropriate behavior in another. These issues must be dealt with because more and more cross-border acquisitions are taking place. (p. 7)

In particular, global teams are one of the most complex forms of team-based organizational structures. "When a team is cross-functional and cross-cultural, people must learn to work not only in units in their own companies, but also across international borders" (McDermott, Waite, & Brawley, 1999, p. 47). HRD professionals and organizations must learn to decipher cultural cues so that the normal workflow is not interrupted by cultural misunderstandings (Schein, 1992).


The conceptual model presented in this study represents a first step in providing HRD professionals and organizations with a tool they can use systematically to examine the range of privacy issues that may be pertinent to their particular situation. The model identifies environmental mechanisms that provide opportunities for individual and group privacy. The conceptual framework presented can be used to approximate privacy conditions that are pertinent to the trainees' situation and to help trainees develop action plans that include physical constraints and opportunities for privacy to support training transfer. Giving workers some control over their environments in this way can reduce stress. The model also identifies cognitive and overt behaviors to help HRD professionals and organizations better understand the active role that individuals and work groups play in managing privacy. Understanding these key concepts promotes tolerance and a healthy respect for what workers are doing to regulate privacy and to combat stress. Finally, the model identifies policy and social supports governed by the organization that trainers can use to guide the development of training tools for office protocol. This kind of training program empowers individuals and groups by enabling them to modify the work environment themselves and their own social norms to manage privacy better. The best scenario is one in which organizations provide diverse environments, allowing for worker flexibility and control. The model allows them to examine the range of privacy issues they need to consider in their particular situation and then structure work activities that allow individuals and work groups to experience a mix of settings for individual or group privacy, communication, team interaction, research and computer work, teleconferencing, and so forth.

The demands of managing cultural diversity in American industries and doing business in global markets are challenging HRD professionals to design training programs that develop intercultural training skills for workers. The study stresses that these skills should include a cultural awareness about the different ways that privacy needs are regulated and the ways that these needs are met. Understanding the deeper values and assumptions that cultures share about privacy is crucial in training and developing multicultural work teams. The cultural variability of privacy in today's global workforce represents a much-needed area of research. Social mechanisms that can be used to provide for individual and group privacy needs is another critical research area needed in training and development. The potential necessity, also, to provide for diverse privacy needs of an aging workforce warrants further research. Corporations face complex decisions as they attempt to provide work environments that produce the highest productivity. The model presented in the study enhances an organization's ability to target privacy-regulating mechanisms that facilitate performance for today's work environments.


1 Studies examining the transfer of training report that the percentage of training that actually transfers is extremely low and that much of it is extinguished over time (Broad & Newstrom, 1992; Georges, 1988; Grabowski, 1983; Kelly, 1982). Organizational issues that have been documented to impact training transfer include management and collegial level of support, availability of resources and technology to support transfer, timeliness of training to try out new learning, training relevance, and potential application of training on-the-job (Foxon, 1995).


Kupritz is Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Resource Development at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.


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Tracy Gilmore