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Workplace Monitoring: Is it Ethical and Legal?

January 20, 2014 Information Technology, General 0 Comments

Workplace Monitoring: Is it Ethical and Legal?Access to information is paramount for any business or organization, and millions of dollars have been invested in information technology systems and infrastructures. As technology advances, making it easy and inexpensive to install and operate surveillance systems, some employers are implementing workplace monitoring programs. Their raison d'être is to protect their investment against illegal actions and lost productivity.

The pervasiveness of the Internet has led to an increase in employees who use it for purposes not related to work. Although workplace monitoring will allow a business to track productivity, keep tabs on the dissemination of confidential company information and maintain employee safety and security, there are personal privacy concerns as well. 

Surveillance and Workplace Monitoring: The Technology

There are many options when it comes to software and hardware monitoring solutions. Typically, surveillance activities are carried out electronically via a range of devices, from security cameras and motion detectors to software programs that track online activities by employees.

Software solutions can log keystrokes, websites interacted with, incoming and outgoing chats and emails, software installations, desktop screenshots and much more. All activities logged are then presented in easy-to-read graphical reports. Employers can be alerted when certain actions are performed by an employee or when the worker is not meeting productivity goals.

Employers may also employ telephone, audio and video monitoring. In most states, it is a requirement that organizations monitoring telephone calls inform participants of the recording or monitoring of the conversation. This is typically done by either playing a recorded message or putting a beep tone on the line. 

Is it Legal?

Currently, the right of an employee — or any individual for that matter — to location privacy has not been clearly established. Congress proposed and attempted to codify such a right, the Location Privacy Protection Act of 2001, but it was never passed into law. In essence, no laws directly address employee location monitoring in the US, leaving employers with considerable leeway to monitor their workers as an extension of the right to control business functions like customer service or manufacturing line productivity.

Legally, when it comes to workplace monitoring, employees have little recourse. The 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act that prohibits unauthorized interception of electronic communications such as email is the most relevant federal law, though it exempts service providers from its provisions. This exemption is commonly interpreted to include employers.

Ethics, Anybody?

Whether employees should have the right to privacy in the workplace is the ethical challenge that companies face. There are many ethical considerations encouraging employee monitoring, including the need to avoid leaks of sensitive information, stop violation of company policies, recover lost crucial communications and limit legal liability, to name a few.

Provide guidelines through a company manual or handbook best practices when using company equipment, especially when conducting personal business at work. Some steps for ethical compliance:

  • Set written policies. Enact a code of ethics that ensures both employer and employee understand how to conduct themselves in the workplace and know exactly what is expected of each other.
  • Inform employees. Make full disclosure about the stealth monitoring systems you are implementing so that workers are not monitored without their knowledge. 
  • Uphold ethical standards. Ensure the monitoring exercise remains moral. Recognize that an employee does not give up all of his or her privacy when they are at work.
  • Encourage participation. Involving employees in the decision to create surveillance will allow for common ground in developing principles that are acceptable to both sides.

When it comes to workplace monitoring, it is usually the information technology personnel that are tasked with being the watchdogs and the gatekeepers of the organization. Whatever techniques are employed in these operations should be above board, ethical and within the law. 

Image source: Wikimedia Commons.


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