Electronic Monitoring of Employees in the Workplace

By Kelly, Eileen P. | National Forum, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Electronic Monitoring of Employees in the Workplace


Kelly, Eileen P., National Forum


In an April 2000 survey, the American Management Association found that more than two thirds of U.S. firms engage in electronic monitoring of their employees. As surveillance technology continues to evolve, workplace monitoring is expected to increase. The exact nature and extent of employee activities monitored by employers vary widely. Among other areas, monitoring can encompass e-mail, voice mail, telephone conversations, internet usage, computer files, location tracking, and video surveillance.

Existing company policies and practices regarding monitoring of employees encompass a broad spectrum. Some employers do not monitor employees at all. Others monitor selectively where there is a legitimate business need. Still other employers monitor virtually all aspects of an employee's work conduct. To provide guidance to employees and reduce the risk of a successful lawsuit, companies that do monitor are turning more and more to written employee-monitoring policies.

A formal policy has several advantages. A written policy, coupled with consistent enforcement, can help a company demonstrate good-faith efforts to prevent hostile-environment sexual harassment. With a written policy, employees are put on notice about being monitored, what activity is being monitored, what is considered inappropriate usage of company assets, and what disciplinary actions can be taken for infractions of the policy.

BUSINESS REASONS FOR MONITORING

Employers monitor employees primarily because of concerns over productivity and potential legal liability. Concerns over safety, theft, and industrial espionage are additional reasons why employers monitor. Employers interested in monitoring employee productivity have extensive technological means by which to measure work activity at the most detailed level. Software exists to capture every keystroke, every error, and every moment spent typing by data-entry clerks. Similarly, the number of customer calls answered, their duration, and their content can be monitored for customer-service representatives. Trucking companies can now deploy location-tracking technology to continuously monitor their drivers' activities.

As electronic communication becomes ever more pervasive in the modern workplace with the use of e-mail, the internet, telecommuting, and corporate intranets, employers are increasingly scrutinizing employee use of these business assets. For example, technology is now available for employers to randomly capture "screen shots" of employees' computer screens to ascertain appropriate usage of business equipment. Clearly, inappropriate usage of electronic assets hampers the productivity and efficiency of a business. According to a survey by SexTracker, 70 percent of all traffic on porn web sites occurs between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Other online web sites, such as retailers, brokerages, and auctions, show similar peak traffic patterns during working hours.

Beyond productivity concerns, employers scrutinize employee email and web usage to avoid or mitigate potential legal liability for workplace sexual-harassment claims. Courts are increasingly finding employers liable for sexually harassing, hostile work environments when their employees use company equipment to transmit offensive e-mail or sexually explicit pictures. Because the e-mail systems and computer systems are extensions of the employer's property, the employer has a duty to prevent harassment from occurring on them. …

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