Employee Privacy in the Workplace

We See What You Do, We Hear What You Say

Through the years public concern about workplace privacy has grown. Laws in almost every state allow the monitoring of employees in the course of their work day. Advanced technology has made it possible to monitor workers while on and off the employer's premises. As technology advances, methods to monitor employees become more sophisticated. Current laws don't address every issue that is raised regarding workplace privacy.

From a company perspective, workplace monitoring is essential to the daily operation of the business. The work ethic in America has changed over the years from the "traditional" standard of job commitment, achievement, and high ethical values to a new lower work ethic of wanting more and giving less. Companies pay high costs associated with losses caused by employee theft, vandalism, and lawsuits. One way to reduce losses and costs is to implement employee monitoring. A good loss prevention program that incorporates employee monitoring is a benefit to both employer and employees.

Employee monitoring

Employee monitoring has a place in society, and employers do have the right to monitor employee performance and use of company resources. Employers lose money when an employee doesn't perform the work that she is being paid to do. In effect, that employee is stealing from her employer by not providing what she agreed to provide, which is work in exchange for a paycheck.

Contrary to popular belief, monitoring in the workplace also benefits the employee. For example, a very expensive pair of sun glasses is stolen from Joe while he is at work. He accuses Dave, his work partner, of taking the glasses because Dave complemented Joe on them, and said that he wants a pair. Joe goes to Human Resources and lodges a complaint against Dave. It is discovered that Dave didn't steal Joe's glasses; a video camera that is installed in the work area taped Brian, the custodian, pocketing Joe's glasses when he thought no one was watching. This monitoring process saved Dave's reputation and proved who the real culprit is.

Monitoring employees while on the job is a way that companies have to ensure that their losses are minimized. There are many different forms of employee monitoring. There are legal and illegal boundaries, and laws that employers must adhere to. The employer has the right to videotape places where the employee has no reasonable expectation of privacy such as work stations, hallways, work areas, building exterior areas, parking lots, employee break rooms, and common areas. Other things and activities that employers have the right to monitor include:

Telephone calls that are not personal calls that are made or received using company telephones

Voice mail on company voice mail systems

Email messages, incoming and outgoing that are to or from a work email address

Internet usage from company computers

Use of company computers including keystroke, computer screen, and hard-drive monitoring

Instant messaging conducted on company computers

The use of GPS devices in company cars and company provided cell phones to track location, driving speed, and other work related activities.

Cell and Mobile Phone Activity

Safety and litigation issues also warrant workplace monitoring. A video tape is an excellent witness when details of an on-the-job accident are not clear, or a workplace issue is being litigated and facts are missing.

Laws vary from state to state on how far an employer can go to monitor employees. Employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy in restrooms and locker rooms. In most states it is illegal to monitor employees while they are in the restroom or locker room because activities that are carried out in these places are things that are not normally done in public. They are private acts, and the employee has a reasonable expectation of privacy during these activities.

There are also legal issues surrounding the monitoring of underage employees in places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. In many states, lawsuits and criminal charges can be brought against employers that conduct monitoring of minors during private moments.

Employers that practice workplace monitoring should have clear policies on what activities they monitor. They should have a company resource use policy which is clear, and states exactly what the employer's expectations of employees are in relation to the written policies.

From the standpoint of the employee, trust and value as an employee is important when it comes to performing the job effectively. Most employees don't want their every move scrutinized, and constant monitoring is cause of controversy regarding this widespread practice. In organizations where employee monitoring is intense, employee morale is diminished, and productivity is lower than in organizations where employee monitoring is reasonable.

Employee Rules

Telephone use - use company telephones for corporate business only. Receive and place personal calls from a personal cell phone or from a phone that is designated by the employer for personal use.

Voice mail - use company voice mail for business only. Encourage family and friends to leave personal voice mail on your home voice mail or personal cell phone.

Email - use the company email system for company business only. Don't check a web-based email account such as Yahoo or Hotmail from a company computer because the contents of the email will also be monitored. Limit sending and receiving personal email to non-company computers.

Internet -- use the Internet from company computers for work purposes only. Resist the temptation to surf and visit websites that are not related to the job being performed.

Company computers and hard-drives - use for work and storage of company documents. Do not use the company computer for personal use, and do not store personal documents on the hard-drive of the computer.

Instant messaging -- some companies use instant messaging to cut down on communication time. Instant messaging on a company computer should be used as a business communication tool. Don't conduct personal conversations in IM except from a non-company computer.

Company vehicle or cell phone -- if a company car or cell phone is provided to use for the job, use it for work related functions only. Doing personal errands in a company car, or having personal conversations on a company cell phone is overstepping boundaries and is not acceptable behavior.

The majority of employers do monitor their employees. If employee monitoring is not tolerable, it is best not to apply for a job at that company. Most companies will state prior to hire if they have employee monitoring in place. If there are questions, ask them. It is better to be informed before hire than to be hired and walk away from a job because the electronic eyes and ears are watching and listening.