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Employee Monitoring: How Far is Too Far?

The topic of employee monitoring brings about a very touchy ethical question that offers valid points for both sides of an argument. Employers have a right not only to ensure that the people they hire and pay are using company time effectively, but that they’re also not using the equipment provided to them for purposes that may harm a business’ reputation. On the other hand, creating an atmosphere in which “Big Brother” is always watching can incite paranoia and discontent in the workplace, and demonstrates a level of distrust on the part of management.

Employee monitoring is generally considered to be any type of tracking method used to watch what an employee does while at work. This can include anything from video surveillance to email scanning, and with technology today advancing at such a rapid pace, a large number of employers are currently using some form of software to monitor workplace performance.

According to a 2008 survey from the American Management Association, 66 percent of companies said they monitored employee internet activity in some way, while nearly one-third of those who monitored admitted to firing someone for inappropriate web surfing, PC magazine reports

Furthermore, companies are being more secretive about their monitoring tactics. An article on Santa Clara University’s Issues in Ethics blog points to a recent International Data Corporation study that found 45 percent of employees assumed their companies didn’t have email monitoring policies, only to hear of them later via word of mouth.

Currently, the only concrete U.S. law protecting employees from workplace monitoring is the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, passed nearly 3 decades ago in 1986. The rule prohibits employers from deliberately eavesdropping on personal conversations, but obviously doesn’t take into account today’s advanced communication forms such as email and social media. Only two states – Delaware and Connecticut – require that employers notify workers of monitoring, while invasive internet monitoring is illegal in Canada.

Below are some pros and cons for both sides of the monitoring argument:

Pros: The Case for Monitoring

  • Stopping Inappropriate Behaviors: According to a Nielson Media Research study of employees at major corporations such as IBM, Apple and AT&T, workers allegedly logged into online editions of Penthouse “thousands of times” per month, SCU’s blog reports. While pornography is an obvious misuse of company time, other outlets such as gaming websites and social media networks like Facebook or Twitter act as serious productivity risks for un-engaged employees. This can be seen as a breach of a work contract, and a waste of company money. “The underlying principle is value for money,” says Joseph R. Garber, a columnist for Forbes magazine, as quoted by the media outlet. “If you don’t deliver value for money, in some sense, you’re lying.”
  • Protecting Company Property: Companies may consider monitoring when concerned about the use of email for theft of proprietary information. The electronic transfer of employer information can potentially lead of a loss of trade secrets and an untold amount of money. PC magazine cites an incident that occurred at Hewlett-Packard in 2006, in which the company hired private investigators to pinpoint the source of information leaks. They used tactics such as sending fake emails with hidden tracking software and illegally obtaining phone records. As a result, six HP board members resigned or were fired.
  • Maintaining Corporate Professionalism: A lack of monitoring can create a hostile workplace environment, as emails containing inappropriate jokes, racist remarks or other objectionable material could lead to serious legal charges within a company.

Cons: Why Monitoring May Cross the Line

  • Invasion of Privacy: Because some people put in overtime or irregular hours at their place of business, it’s inevitable that company computers will be used for personal matters. A grey area exists over whether property of a machine makes everything that happens inside it property of the company. .
  • Fairness: An issue of fairness also exists when it comes to monitoring, as it’s typically not the high-level employees in a corporation that are being monitored, but rather entry-level or intermediate workers. SCU’s blog cites an article in the journal Public Personnel Management, which found that “the majority of employees being electronically monitored are women in low-paying clerical positions.”
  • The Effect on Workplace Morale: Employee monitoring often creates a level of distrust among workers. When people feel they are constantly being watched, their focus may not always be on the task at hand, but rather on potentially fireable actions they may be committing. Facilitating a culture of trust will result in employees conforming to certain rules as a result of mutual respect, rather than surveillance.

In the end, it’s probably best for workers to ask employers if they’re being watched, as managers’ moral ethics are likely to result in them telling the truth, PC magazine notes. It’s also recommended that employers create an Acceptable Use Policy that clearly outlines what is appropriate in the workplace so employees aren’t caught off-guard.