Employee Monitoring: Privacy in the Workplace?

By Mishra, Jitendra M.; Crampton, Suzanne M. | SAM Advanced Management Journal, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Employee Monitoring: Privacy in the Workplace?


Mishra, Jitendra M., Crampton, Suzanne M., SAM Advanced Management Journal


Introduction

Your employer may be watching and listening. Employee privacy has become a controversial issue in the field of Human Resource management as employers have more technologies available to monitor telephones, computer terminals, and voice mail. This privacy issue has been fueled by the increased use of a variety of electronic monitoring systems. Electronic monitoring is defined as "the computerized collection, storage, analysis, and reporting of information about employees' productive activities" (Office of Technology Assessment, 1987, p. 27). "Currently, as many as 26 million workers in the United States are monitored in their jobs, and this number will increase as computers are used more and more within companies and as the cost of these monitoring systems goes down" (DeTienne, 1993, p. 33). Of those monitored, 10 million have their work evaluated and pay based on the data collected (DeTienne, 1993). "By the end of the decade, as many as 30 million people may be constantly monitored in their jobs" (DeTienne, 1993, p. 33). Because of these predictions, "Electronic monitoring and surveillance have been the subject of high media profile" (Losey, 1994, p. 77).

Managers use several types of employee monitoring systems. Some of the most commonly used are computer monitoring, which measures employee keystroke speed and accuracy; video surveillance, which detects employee theft, horseplay, and safety; spying, which uses detective techniques, when there is suspicious activity within the workplace; eavesdropping and phone tapping, which track incoming, outgoing, and the frequency of employee phone calls; and the active badge system, which tracks an employee's location within the workplace.

Despite the recent appearance of these high-tech monitoring systems, employee monitoring is not new to the business world. As a matter of fact, "employee monitoring has been utilized in the manufacturing industry for several decades to track output, inventory, and general efficiency" (Losey, 1994, p. 77). Prior to 1913, mechanical keystroke counters (cyclometers) and other methods were used for measuring typing output, and since the 1920s telephone calls have been monitored (Attewell, 1987). What has changed in more recent years is the method of supervision and the extent of information gathering capabilities available. Electronic monitoring, although newer in origin, is intrinsically no more invasive than traditional supervision. For some employees, it may actually be less invasive than direct personal supervision.

The issue of employee monitoring has emerged recently because of concerns for employee privacy rights. While employers wish to monitor employees' performance, employees don't want every sneeze, restroom break, or personal activity watched and heard. "American workers have almost no legal protection from employers who want to poke or prod into their personal lives" ("Privacy Invasions," 1993, p. 6). "Few workers realize that there is no federal law that protects their privacy on the job" (Alderman, 1994, p. 31). Advancements in technology, employer abuse or monitoring systems, and the lack of legislation protecting employees have all sparked concern for employee privacy. While employees generally view monitoring as a violation of privacy and a source of unneeded job stress, monitoring continues basically unregulated because employers view it as a means to increase productivity, quality, etc. Because there are advantages and disadvantages to both employers and employees, the debate over the use of monitoring lingers on.

We will discuss some of the common types of monitoring currently being conducted in the workplace along with the advantages and disadvantages argued by both sides of the debate employees and employers. An overview of current legislation governing this area will then be discussed along with some recommended guidelines if such monitoring is to occur.

Types of Employee Monitoring

Various types of employee monitoring systems are used today in American workplaces. …

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