Magazine article Financial Management (UK)

Powers of Observation: Surveillance in the Workplace Is a Difficult Subject That Employers Cannot Afford to Get Wrong. Ben Willmott Explains the Best Way to Keep on the Right Side of the Information Commissioner

Magazine article Financial Management (UK)

Powers of Observation: Surveillance in the Workplace Is a Difficult Subject That Employers Cannot Afford to Get Wrong. Ben Willmott Explains the Best Way to Keep on the Right Side of the Information Commissioner

Article excerpt

Striking the right balance between respecting people's rights to privacy at work and ensuring that they don't misuse business property and systems is a challenge for employers. They have more tools at their disposal than ever before to monitor almost every aspect of the employment relationship. Staff can have their movements filmed on CCTV, their time-keeping tracked by electronic swipe cards, their internet use monitored and their telephone calls recorded.

Most employers argue that they need to be able to monitor their staff to protect their business interests. Most employees appreciate this and are generally relaxed about being monitored, providing that they know it's going on and understand why. Problems are likely to arise only if people believe that their communications are being constantly monitored and they suspect that their employer is trying to catch them out.

Research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has found that organisations which seek to monitor their employees excessively are unlikely to create a culture that fosters trust, loyalty and commitment. The research report, Pressure at Work and the Psychological Contract, reveals that employees who are closely monitored tend to have more negative attitudes towards work and are more likely to suffer from stress.

Organisations must tread carefully because they are subject to stringent regulations in this area. The Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) outlines employers' responsibilities when monitoring staff and handling information about them. These include informing employees about monitoring arrangements, keeping their data secure and respecting the rights of individuals to access any personal information on them that has been collected. The Office of the Information Commissioner is responsible for overseeing DPA compliance and has produced three codes of practice covering recruitment and selection, employment records and monitoring. A final code on medical records is due out early next year.

Businesses must also be careful not to breach article 8(1) of the Human Rights Act 1998, which states that everyone has "the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence". The situation is further complicated by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which governs the interception of communications. This allows employers to use surveillance--even if employees haven't expressed their consent--if the monitoring is required for certain business purposes, including complying with regulatory guidelines and preventing or detecting criminal activity.

At first glance it might look like a minefield for employers, but there are straightforward steps that they can take to help them through. …

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