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Today we were asked by the management of our department to give full access of our agenda in Outlook to the secretary. By full access, I mean the possibility to look, read, write, delete (own) slots in the agenda. It was mentioned that it's imperative not to alter any settings so the entire agenda will be visible to them.

The rationale is that sometimes people come in the department looking for us and by giving full access of our agenda, the secretary can advise these people on when/how to contact us.

On a personal note, I have never experienced something like that. People who want to find me can call me or send me email. I do not see why I should give access to my Outlook agenda, where I also store personal events.

So my natural question is: Is this normal/acceptable? How can I politely say that this, in my opinion, is an unacceptable practice possibly violating privacy?

My department is located in the Netherlands for what it's worth. No prior communication of this problem has been done/discussed.

  • 47
    Perhaps this would be an impetus to take your personal events off your work calendar, and instead share them with your work calendar with details hidden. – Azor Ahai Nov 18 at 16:15
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    But do you have to store your personal events in the work calendar? – user115896 Nov 18 at 18:58
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    Does Outlook provide any audit trail for edits to your calendar? Could someone add something scandalous or delete an important appointment, and then blame you? – user102072 Nov 18 at 22:43
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    You can mark private appointments as "private" in Outlook, and then they should not be visible to anyone except yourself. – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Nov 19 at 1:26
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    I would be sorely tempted to populate my calendar with intensely, embarrassingly personal information, just to see what happens! – Strawberry Nov 19 at 13:04

11 Answers 11

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My own perspective on this from the UK is that it is completely normal outside universities that outlook calendars are made fully accessible by anyone in the org. Many of my non-academic friends continually express surprise that I am allowed to keep my calendar private (I just share busy/free information). Even within universities, all of my professional service colleagues are expected to make their schedules accessible. On the other hand, this would seem to be a place where in general academics tend to be privileged, and I've not heard of faculty colleagues who have been forced to make their calendar public.

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    "Many of my non-academic friends continually express surprise that I am allowed to keep my calendar private (I just share busy/free information)". I'm in the private sector, and other people in the company can only see my busy/free status. Frankly, it shocks me that it doesn't work like this everywhere. – RonJohn Nov 19 at 3:47
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    @PsySp - I agree it sounds lame, but it is the same reason that my friends in other organisations are given for having to make their calendars availalbe. My guess is that the person making this demand either a) Is fresh from such an organisation, and doesn't understand that academia is different or b) Does understand that i has behaved differently, but thinks it's time Uni's start behaving like "proper" businesses. – Ian Sudbery Nov 19 at 11:09
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    @IanSudbery The person making this demand is a very established academic with many years of academic (and only academic) experience. If they want our department to behave like a proper business, they could also raise our salaries to the industry levels as well. – PsySp Nov 19 at 11:12
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    Anyone in your organization can edit your calendar?! – Michael Hampton Nov 20 at 3:49
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    Your answer seems to answer reading part. But what about writing and deleting items? Anyone in your organization ever could delete your meetings from your calendar? – Mołot Nov 20 at 14:11
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This is unreasonable. The scheduling part is reasonable, but there is no good reason I can think of to let a secretary that doesn't answer to you know who you are meeting with or exactly what you are doing every minute of the day. This seems HIGHLY invasive. I would simply make your free/busy times available without making a stink about it, and delegating the secretary appointment-making abilities.

Of course, if your chair wants to make a departmental secretary available to you to manage your calendar, this has value and you might want to consider it.

Also, you are entitled to manage your own time. If you would like to be rigid about your availability and office hours, as people who are very serious about their time management seem to be, your secretary should not be able to override it.

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    I agree with the general idea, two additional aspects: a) from the technical side, Outlook allows to show just the busy/free information, this is just a question of using the suitable Outlook features b) from the legal side, in the Netherlands you fall under the EU data privacy laws, if for example you call in sick for a day, you are 'busy' all day which should be public within the company. On the other hand, everyone being able to check who had how many sick days last year is almost certainly not legal. – quarague Nov 19 at 12:45
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    I don't understand why this is invasive. This is your work calendar, not your personal calendar. – DrMcCleod Nov 19 at 14:21
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    @DrMcCleod: work calendars may contain information that is exclusively related to work, but should still not be visible to other employees. Staff at university may have appointments with students who ask for confidentiality. For a obvious examples, think e.g. of the work calendar of an ombudsperson, or someone who is in the staff council. – cbeleites supports Monica Nov 20 at 14:04
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    @DrMcCleod I have "Physio" in my work calendar (so I don't organize meetings that clash with it). I can imagine other people want to put "Psychologist", or "AIDS clinic" in for the same reason, without other people being able to read that.) – Martin Bonner supports Monica Nov 20 at 14:31
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    @MartinBonnersupportsMonica that's why you would keep private events separate and mark the time slot in the work calendar just as "unavailable" or "private event" etc. – Frank Hopkins Nov 21 at 2:19
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I would probably object to it. However:

Someone has a problem that they need solved and came up with a "solution" that they didn't think through very deeply. While the solution may be objectionable, the problem remains. Perhaps you or yourself and a few others can explore the issue and come up with a better solution that doesn't interfere with your own work flows and privacy.

At a very minimum, if there is no solution but to grant access, the people given access should have very clear, written, rules about what can be modified or even revealed about your documents.

But, in today's world, there are probably solutions that you can devise that meet everyone's needs. See if you can help find them.

I think this is a case of simple carelessness.

  • Thanks. I would agree that it is indeed a case of carelessness if it was isolated incident and if we knew about that. It is not rocket science to inform us about the issue and discuss about solutions. But the phrasing was very imperative (we should give full access). – PsySp Nov 18 at 13:58
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    'Someone had a problem that they need solved and came up with a "solution" that they didn't think through very deeply' - how true! And how much of bureaucracy's misery is due to this. Words of wisdom of the year. Upvote +100. Is there a way of giving you points as a bounty? – Captain Emacs Nov 18 at 18:50
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    @CaptainEmacs once the question is 2 days old you can set a bounty and then award it however you like. academia.stackexchange.com/help/bounty – Dan Neely Nov 19 at 21:53
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So my natural question is: Is this normal/acceptable?

This is quite normal. Especially those in management positions (and to a lesser extent, people in faculty positions are also frequently involved in management tasks) often have the secretariat managing their calendars. For example, when picking a date for a meeting, the secretariat should be able to see when the participants are available. The secretariat may also need to be able to view details of other appointments, for instance to determine if the location is not too far away from a different meeting they want to plan on your behalf, or to decide whether some less important meeting can be rescheduled to accommodate something more important.

I do not see why I should give access of my Outlook agenta, where I also store personal events.

This is not a very strong argument. You could simply store your personal appointments somewhere else (i.e., in your personal, not work calendar). If you object on this basis, your employer would probably tell you to do exactly that.

How can I politely say that this, in my opinion, is unacceptable practice possibly violating privacy?

It is a violation of your privacy, but only a very slight one. The university has a legitimate interest in making your calendar accessible to the secretariat. Legally, this would probably outweigh any privacy concerns.

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    In my (non-Dutch) organization, I fine tune the access per person. I have an assigned admin, and they get full rights. Other admins can view, but not edit. For the stated rationale, full access is not needed, only view (and in Outlook the viewing privileges can include or exclude private items). – Jon Custer Nov 18 at 14:11
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    I don't really see the issue: if you want to store private details of your life in your work-provided Outlook calendar, then you are free to do so -- but you can't then expect privacy to be a good argument. Just use a personal calendar for personal stuff. – Wolfgang Bangerth Nov 18 at 18:00
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    @WolfgangBangerth -- then you'll have conflicting appointments scheduled by a secretary who can't see your real free times. I think it's all or none -- at least with respect to free/busy data – Scott Seidman Nov 18 at 18:42
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    @ScottSeidman not really. You keep your personal calendar with all your personal details, and double-enter your personal appointments into your work calendar, including only minimal details. The extra work is annoying, but it is the common way to keep private things private and also to mark time as busy. – Zoredache Nov 19 at 18:03
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    @WolfgangBangerth -- to a certain extent, I can agree, but generally, we have a lot of different responsibilities, and the academic environment leans toward letting the faculty decide when they want to get stuff done. If, for example, Tuesday is my research day, I might not want to attend meetings or see students. If I wanted to be in an environment where my employer managed all my time, I might have chosen a different career path. – Scott Seidman Nov 19 at 21:43
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Outlook has various levels of privilege that you can give to other users.

Give the secretary "Editor" privileges, and mark all of your private appointments with the "private" flag.

The secretary can then see when you are available, and can add or remove appointments for you but not modify or delete appointments that you have made. By setting the private flag on your private appointments, the secretary can only see that you have an appointment but not what it is about.

That setup will allow you to (mostly) comply with the requirements while maintaining as much of your privacy as possible.


As others have said, Outlook and the Exchange server behind it belong to your employer. Any data on their system must be assumed to be visible to your employer. As such, if you really want to keep your private appointments private then you shouldn't have them on your employer's system.

Requesting access to your calendar is reasonable. You are there to work for the company (university,) so your supervisors and higher ups have an interest in knowing when you are there and potentially available to be talked to.

Since most people are clueless about the access rights you can set in Outlook, you ended up with a request (command?) to give the secretary full access to your calendar when less would have done.

You might want to ask if the use of limited rights was even considered - maybe whoever wrote the directive knows nothing about the limited rights. Or, knows but thinks it is too difficult to explain to all of the users in your department.


It may also be that the Dutch translation for the various rights is as stupid as the German translation in earlier versions of Outlook. They were named something useless like "Level 1," "Level 2," etc. I've just checked, and current Outlook (Office 365) has finally gotten decent translations.

  • Thank you! I think this might be the best solution and I hope that by marking my appointments as "private" they will not be able to see their actual content (they requested "author" privilege and I am not sure if that prevents them to see the items I mark as private) – PsySp Nov 20 at 15:42
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Before you discuss this, please be aware that there are administrative settings available that can override any setting you set, and these settings can be set by Exchange Server administrators without you noticing at all. If they just went into their Exchange Server configuration and added the secretary to the "Full Access" list of your mailbox (which includes your calendar), there would be no discussion and you couldn't even see that this access was granted.

By law, in most of the U.S., the "personal" business calendar of an employee is owned completely by the organization, not the employee, so the employee cannot expect privacy. A U.S. organization would not breach any law if they granted someone else access to your whole mailbox.

In most of Europe, on the other hand, the employee can expect some privacy in his "personal" business calendar, and any other provision has to be written down and discussed with the employee in advance. Adding someone to the "Full Access" list would breach several privacy laws at once. If a European organization wants to give someone "Full Access" to other people's calendars, they have to get written consent from the affected employees, which is easier if a valid reason is given. European organizations, if they grant "Full Access" extensively, usually have already amended their work contract templates.

Be assured that, in both cases, the use of such access to modify entries is visible to the affected employee. In case someone creates an entry at 7 a.m. for a meeting at 8 a.m., but you come in at 9 as usual, and your boss asks you where you have been, you both can see in Outlook who created the calendar entry and when.

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    "Written consent" from an employee is completely worthless in Europe. An employee cannot consent to anything, because the employer-employee relationship implies a certain unbalance of powers which means consent is not considered "freely given". Under GDPR, a necessary and sufficient condition for an employer to make an outlook calendar accessible is having a "legitimate interest". – Tom van der Zanden Nov 20 at 8:22
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It is not only "acceptable," but plain common sense, unless you consider "academic privilege" is the right to continue to manage your time in the same way 100 years ago.

Suppose someone has set up a meeting with 10 attendees, and needs to cancel it. What exactly is the purpose of all 10 people making changes, and interrupting their own work to do that, when one person (a secretary/PA) can make all the changes, most likely do the task quicker than the 10 individuals because that is the sort of work they are employed to do?

And how much time is wasted when one of the attendees "forgets" to delete the cancelled meeting, and therefore disrupts scheduling a different meeting in the same time slot, and/or turns up at the meeting room and wastes half an hour wondering why everyone else is late, and eventually trying to contact somebody to find out what is going on? (Good luck trying to contact the original meeting organizer after the meeting would have started - they probably cancelled it because they had something more important to do at that time, and they are now doing it!)

If you really think this is unacceptable, you should persuade the university to fire all non-academic support staff.

Industry figured this stuff out as soon as the tools to implement it were available. Maybe the stereotype of "people living in ivory towers" is actually an accurate description!

  • That's all good and fine but notice that in order to do that, you do not need full access to know the details and whereabouts of each individual. If my slot says I'm free, them I'm free – PsySp Nov 19 at 14:59
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    This doesn't really represent how people work, in my experience. (For reference, I'm in industry.) People usually plan their day out and then only refer back to the calendar on an as-needed basis. So if they come in at 8am, think "I have xyz from 8:30 to 9:30, and then a meeting in the main conference room at 10, so I'll pick up a coffee on my way there..." and then they don't look at the calendar again! If events disappear "by magic" off of the calendar they will 100% not notice. We use the normal Outlook protocol for canceling meetings where it sends an e-mail. – user3067860 Nov 19 at 14:59
  • (We also don't have a secretary planning out meetings for us, except for execs who have their own personal secretaries, instead meetings are planned by talking to find a good time. So having fully accurate availability information is not necessary on the calendar--but most people do leave their work meetings publicly visible. On the other hand, we have "core hours" when you can expect most people to at least be "at work", which may not hold in academia.) – user3067860 Nov 19 at 15:04
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    "Suppose someone has set up a meeting with 10 attendees, and needs to cancel it." Then that person sends a cancellation for the meeting to all attendees, and Exchange automatically and immediately sets the cancelled meeting to the FreeBusyStatus of "Free", which allows everyone to create a new meeting invite. That's how it works. Write access to other calendars is only required if someone manages your time for you, because it's their job to do it. For example, if you are a Telco service technician, the Telco phone support will manage your time (when to repair what and where). – Alexander Nov 19 at 16:17
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Consider that this is your employer's outlook license, paid and provided by your employer, to enable you working more effectively for him. So technically, you don't have any rights to a single bit in the content, and he can do with it what he wants.

Practically, many people feel this as intrusive, and I don't like it either. But as explained before, you can only hope for their goodwill.

Note that every appointment / meeting has a flag Private, and if you set that, the secretary will still not see anything inside it, only the invited people can see it. I use that for example for Doctor's appointments or other personal appointments that I don't want them to see.
Depending on the secratary's ethics and mindset, she can complain about that, and you have no choices (other than quitting), or she understands and will never say a word, especially when you use it sparingly or for appointments that are ouside of work times.

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    The OP said they were in the Netherlands. "you don't have any rights to a single bit in the content" is completely false in the Netherlands (and the rest of the EU). – Martin Bonner supports Monica Nov 20 at 14:35
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No it's not normal. Context: Netherlands, with some academia experience but mostly in industry, albeit in IT and software development in places where no-one wears a tie.

It is normal to share one's calendar to the extent that your co-workers know when you are available. I usually share the details also, and put down private events as private. This is because i want people to be able to see what meetings i may have so that it is easier to plan. For example if i'm unavailable at a certain date because of a meeting they know can or will be rescheduled, they could still ask me to meet them at that time-slot.

Demanding you grant secretaries access rights to reschedule your agenda is stupid because it will eventually lead to the calendar not showing the actual events. If your dentist appointment is removed, you will still go to the dentist and people at work will not know that you are not at work.

Now if you had your own secretary, who you instruct to schedule appointments on your behalf, that would be different.

It is entirely possible that management is clueless about outlook access rights, and/or not very competent. Maybe just informing them that secretaries and others should only have read-access to a persons calendar would suffice to change these new rules.

  • Thanks! I also don't understand why they do not adopt the simple solution of sharing our agenta and then they can look and plan accordingly. But requesting "author" privilege strikes me as odd! I am willing to believe that, as other users have also said, they did not put much thought into that (although one may argue that the imperative tone of the request might suggest otherwise) – PsySp Nov 20 at 15:47
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This is more of a "how to use Outlook" question (do we have an Office SE?) Or a workplace relations question. Not an Academia question.

It is really fine. Several answers say no, but they are in the "not used to it" category.

This is your workplace email--they can do what they want with it. Also, it is very reasonable to give full access to a personal admin (dedicated secretary). Dept secretary not that different.

Note:

  1. You can still make individual extremely private appointments (proctologist, affair-mate) completely private at the APPOINTMENT level (you click a box). Leave your routine work stuff (committees, students, etc. open to the secretary. She needs that when juggling meetings. Might even get some help from her.

  2. You can keep your email confidential. (When I had a dedicated assistant, I gave full permission for that, though. Just have to use a personal email for personal traffic.)

0

You got in other answers all the reasons why your calendar should be open.

I keep my calendar private with free/busy information available, mostly for two reasons:

  • I have confidential information. Simply the name of the meeting ("disciplinary meeting with Mr X - slacking off at work") or a list of participants may be problematic. Depending on your role this may apply or not.

  • I am allowed by law (in France, I guess Netherlands may be close to that too) to have private items in my calendar. Nobody is allowed to have access to these items beside me. This can be solved, however, with the "Private" flag on an Outlook meeting (and restricting access to these meetings)

  • Does really some boss names their meetings "disciplinary meeting with X - slacking off at work"? This seems unprofessional. – user115896 Nov 20 at 16:53
  • @Heutl: that one was obviously tongue-in-cheek. But yes, there are many meetings which titles are confidential (say, "Production Line X incident review", "Disciplinary case John X", "vulnerability of web site xxx") → all these can be used to gain intelligence about possible issues in an organization. Again - in academia it may be less pronounced but still (it is certainly the case in companies, especially starting from a certain level) – WoJ Nov 21 at 7:54

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