Posted salary statistics included personal information, says adjudicator

Names weren't posted, but staff member was identified by the number of publications listed beside his salary increment

The University of Alberta violated an employee’s privacy when it published a statistical summary of salaries, an adjudicator for Alberta’s privacy commissioner has ruled.

Each year, the university grants salary increases in increments. Each department receives an allotted number of increments which is distributed by the department chair according to merit. The department of electrical and computer engineering posted statistics on how the increments were awarded among the staff. Names weren’t included, but the number of articles published by each staff member who received a salary increment was posted along with the amount of increments received. One staff member complained, saying a colleague was able to identify his salary increase because of the number of publications listed with his increments. Because of this, he argued the posting was a disclosure of his salary information without his consent.

The university said the information used for the statistics was research information obtained from the faculty members themselves. It also argued the number of articles he had published wasn’t personal information as it was available publicly.

The adjudicator found the number of publications was a unique identifier of the staff member, as it was a “personal characteristic” giving information about his publication and academic history.

“Disclosing the number of publications in this instance has the effect of identifying him because of the relatively small number of persons to whom the statistics apply,” the adjudicator said. The adjudicator noted the staff member had claimed some of his colleagues were able to identify him based on the number of publications and thus his salary increment. Though the university argued there was some overlap in the ranges of the number of publications and therefore individuals couldn’t be identified, the adjudicator pointed out the staff member had the most publications and was more easily picked out.

The adjudicator found the information posted wasn’t the staff member’s personal salary information as it didn’t disclose his actual salary, just the increment by which it was increasing. However, the increments were based on merit and as a result, posting them effectively posted the evaluations of staff job performance. Since the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act specifies evaluations as personal information, posting them with an identifier such as the number of publications was an invasion of the staff member’s privacy.

The adjudicator ordered the university to stop publishing the salary increment statistics with any information that could identify any employee. See Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner Order F2007-015 (Nov. 15, 2007), T. Cunningham, Adjudicator.

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