Spying on Employee Activity in The Workplace

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There's no doubt that employers and managers have a responsibility to ensure that employees remain focused on tasks and are not engaged in any fraudulent, illegal or unethical behavior. However, there are specific guidelines and tips that should be implemented by human resources managers and other executive staff to avoid problems associated with employee activity spying in the workplace.

Whether it’s a concern about a disgruntled employee who might carry out an instance of workplace violence, issues related to someone who might be stealing from the company, or even a concern about lost hours due to time spent on non-productive activities at work, employers must remain conscious of the issues surrounding the office and employee privacy.

Unlike other areas of human resources, this area of the law is still unfolding and courts are still interpreting the role of employee monitoring privacy concerns and the development of monitoring programs in the workplace.

Employee Monitoring Should Always Be Done with Clear Guidelines

Employers who are interested in monitoring employee activity in the workplace should always have a thorough set of policies and guidelines designed to help them make this decision. Having appropriate procedures and guidelines outlined in advance can help to prevent problems and to provide clarity when an employee comes forward about concerns.

Employers are increasingly, and often with good reason, concerned about issues related to illegal employee conduct, data security, property and identity theft, viewing of offensive or inappropriate behavior, decreased productivity, violence in the workplace and on the job injuries and accidents.

The Legal Responsibilities of Employers with Regard to Workplace Privacy

Employers have a legal responsibility to employees to protect the confidentiality and privacy of any personal information that was gathered and stored in the course of employment. Employers are often interested in developing strategies that can help to minimize these risks.

This must be done however, in conjunction with knowledge about the rising costs of litigation and privacy issues that may be raised by an employee who believes that the employer has crossed the line or broken the law. Because employers are so interested in minimizing risks, many will monitor employees at work in order to prevent types of loss, including misconduct and injuries.

The business interests of the company need to be carefully balanced with reasonable employee privacy expectations. The availability of technology and the fast pace at which technology changes are additional issues that put employers and human resource managers in the spotlight.

It is now easier than ever for employers to track all employee telephone, internet and email use, without employees even being aware that they are monitored.

That being said, an employer who does not properly explain the reasoning or the methods behind employee monitoring could wind up facing an invasion of privacy lawsuit, decreased morale, and lower levels of loyalty.

While an employer is often within their rights to create and implement an employee monitoring program, it must be done properly to minimize these risks and keep everyone on the same page.

The Role of Workplace Monitoring

The most recent study conducted regarding employer workplace monitoring was completed in 2007. This was carried out by the American Management Association in E-Policy Institute, and it identified that of the 304 employers surveyed, approximately half use some form of video monitoring in the workplace. Two-thirds of those employers engaged in employee internet use monitoring.

Furthermore, one-third of employers reported having terminated an employee based on findings from internet monitoring, and 28% of those respondents had terminated workers as a result of misuse of emails. Employee monitoring can happen in any business, but it is much more common in insurance, banking, brokerage and real estate industries.

A Human Resources and Business Case for Monitoring Employees in The Workplace

One of the major problems associated with employee monitoring is a misunderstanding of the purpose of monitoring. Misunderstood or unnecessary employee monitoring can lead to lowered morale.

This means that employers must make a clear case for the purpose of monitoring and these interests should be communicated to employees so they understand the purpose behind the surveillance and why it helps to represent their best interests as well.

Effective and legal monitoring carried out by the human resources department and other managers can cut off employee behavior before it becomes a serious problem, such as misappropriation of data or theft.

The Role of Human Resources in Employee Monitoring

Employers have a responsibility to provide a safe workplace for employees, and to properly protect any sensitive or private information gained about employees. The human resource management professional plays a crucial role in managing workplace privacy. Working with risk management and security professionals is strongly recommended for any human resources expert.

The use of appropriate employee monitoring can help to curb problems of security breach, employee misconduct and theft. However, that monitoring should be tailored very narrowly with the appropriate legal business justification.

The HR professional should be involved at the early stages of considering monitoring in the first place to ensure that the solution is understandable to the employees and to ensure that it does not decrease overall morale.

In addition to being brought in early on in the discussions about employee monitoring, human resources can also be key for communicating employers' procedures and policies, and in the explanation of how it will indeed be implemented. Employees should understand that they do not have a reasonable privacy expectation for employer provided systems and equipment like telephones and computer networks.

It is also important for human resources to be involved in the determination of whether or not these monitoring programs create an atmosphere of surveillance in the middle of a campaign to organize a union, or are in violation of collective bargaining agreements. Given that there are so many complex issues involved in the management of concerns like this, you need to ensure that your human resources professional is involved in all aspects of this development.   

A fully-developed policy and one that is clear to employers and employees alike is the best way to avoid problems in the workplace.


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