"Employee Monitoring: Is there Privacy in the Workplace?" 2003. Consumers Action Network
Professionally ethical standards dictate that employees should be committed to working and performing at a professional level while in the workplace. Most employees assume that they have a right to a reasonable expectation to privacy while in the workplace. The majority of employers however in today's society, do utilize some form of employee surveillance and monitoring. This monitoring often extends into private emails and phone communications. Do employers have the right to monitor an employee's every move, from a trip to the water cooler to a visit to the lavoratory? Many employers have successfully argued that they have a legitimate business right to invade an employee's privacy in the workplace. Currently much controversy exists regarding the issue of workplace monitoring.
Advanced technologies now make it possible for employers to monitor almost every aspect of an employees' job. Technology allows monitoring of telephone usage, computer terminal usage, electronic and voice mail and internet usage (CAN, 2003). Typically the monitoring of such usage is unregulated, and therefore poses the questions of the ethical and moral righteousness of excessive monitoring in the workplace.
Employers should have the right to monitor employee communications while in the workplace, including telephone and computer usage. Such monitoring however, should be restricted to an employers surveillance of work related calls and situations, unless an employer has reasonable ground to expect that an employee is abusing organizational programs and services. When an employer has reasonable cause to suspect that an employee is abusing corporate equipment and time, then an employer should be afforded the right to monitor employee communications to assess the nature and depth of the problem, and take appropriate remedial action.
In most situations, unless a company policy specifies otherwise, an organization may "listen, watch and read most of your workplace communications" (CAN, 2003). This includes phone calls at work. Employers may choose to monitor calls with customers and clients in an effort to gain an adequate evaluation of quality control (CAN, 2003). Such monitoring is purposeful in nature and well within the guidelines of professional ethical standards. Many employers have established policy guidelines that specifically inform employees of the situations and circumstances under which their communications may be monitored.
An employer is not however, in all circumstances, obligated to inform an employee that they are monitoring communication exchanges that occur within the workplace. Only in some states do requirements exist that would require employers to inform the consumer of specific monitoring or surveillance measures. In California for example, the state law requires that all parties involved in a conversation be made aware that there conversation may be recorded or monitored, whether through use of a beep tone or recorded message (CAN, 2003). Such notification does allow the employer to monitor the content of their messages. Most employees assume that an employer will only utilize technology to monitor work related calls and email communications. This is not the case however, and very often private messages are entwined with personal ones, and employers end up with evidence and details regarding both forms of communication.
Many employees have argued that the law was established to protect and maintain personal employee and consumer rights to privacy. Under general federal case law, an employer is obligated to stop monitoring a call once they realize it is personal in nature (CAN, 2003 & Watkins v. L.M. Berry & Co., 704 F .2d 577, 583 11th Cir. 1093). However, the majority of employers inform employees that personal phone calls are against company policy, and therefore the employee is expected to assume the risk of monitoring when they make personal calls on business lines (CAN, 2003). In this day and age the only mechanism available to ensure privacy of personal calls is usage of mobile or pay phones. Many employers have also argued that when they have reasonable grounds to expect abuse, they may monitor employee's phone calls for content regardless of whether or not their calls are private in nature.
Many employees assume that conversations they have with co-workers are also private in nature. However, conversations with co-workers are also subject to monitoring just as conversations with customers are over the telephone (CAN, 2003). In most circumstances phone calls of any kind that employees make can be monitored and recorded via a device called a 'pen register' (CAN, 2003). This register enables the employer to view any phone numbers dialed by an employee's extension, and allows recording of the length of each phone call (CAN, 2003). Employers justify usage of such mechanisms as a way to track costs and ensure employees are spending an adequate amount of time on appropriate tasks. Usage of such recording devices does present a disadvantage to employees; many employees have argued that information gathered from pen registers may unfairly portray their usage of the phone over long durations with particular customers, and are concerned that employers will use such devices to measure efficiency rather than the quality of service that employees may be offering (CAN, 2003).
Computer monitoring is one of the most controversial ethical subjects in the professional workplace today. Technological advances have made it increasingly simpler for employees to monitor every detail of an employees work, down to the keystroke. Computer monitoring comes in many forms. One mechanism often employed by organizations is a software program that enables manager to view what is on a screen or stored in the hard disk on an employees computer (CAN, 2003). Employers utilizing such software are able to monitor internet usage including use of electronic mail and web surfing during work hours (CAN, 2003).
Many employees have attempted to argue that such mechanisms do not adequately assess whether or not they are putting in an appropriate amount of time on the job. For example, an employee may argue that their netsurfing is directly related to their job function. Other employees argue the legitimacy of web surfing during their official break or lunch hours. For employers to adequately assess the actual times that an employee utilizes internet and corporate resources, and compare them to employee's reported lunch and day breaks, a significant amount of time and resources would have to be wasted.
Keystroke monitoring is available for individuals in data entry and word-processing jobs. Such programs typically monitor how many keystrokes per hour an employee is performing (CAN, 2003). Employers argue that such software is ethically and morally acceptable because data entry and word processor workers should be expected to maintain a certain level of performance throughout the day. Such software has the ability to inform employers if a particular employee is also performing at a rate above or below a designated number of keystrokes that should be expected for their position. This software does not necessarily take into consideration time away from the computer an employee may be spending networking or gathering information for a certain project, and therefore may penalize employees unfairly.
Most employers have the ability to monitor what an employee is viewing on their terminal as they are viewing it. Employees are not granted many protections under the law, unless they have a contract with an employer that specifically limits an employer's right to monitor there daily activities. Computer monitoring often occurs without an employee's knowledge.
The biggest source of controversy related to the ethical morality of computer monitoring is whether or not employers have a right to monitor electronic mail systems within the workplace. Nary an employee has worked at any company and not sent a personal email at one time or another. Some employees frequently use corporate email accounts for personal use on breaks. An employer owns the electronic mail system used at any company however, and therefore maintains the right to review the contents of any email programs at any point in time. Messages that are sent from an employee to anyone in the company as well as messages sent to individuals outside of a company are subject to monitoring (CAN, 2003).
Even personal and private accounts such as Yahoo and Hotmail can be monitored by employers if an employee is using a corporate computer terminal. The reality is that many court cases have been decided in the employers favor, and therefore employees need to be very cautious about performing personal tasks on company time (CAN, 2003).
Many employees assume that by deleting personal messages, voice mails and emails they are releasing themselves from liability. Unfortunately the majority of voice mail systems that are electronic in nature and email systems are backed up by company's permanently on magnetic tape and can be retrieved at any point in time (CAN, 2003).
Very few laws currently exist that regulate employee monitoring. In fact the primary professional ethical consideration is whether or not current law "provides adequate protection for the individual's right to privacy in the workplace from threats posed by computer technology, electronic eavesdropping, video and sound recording equipment and databases filled with personal information" (Rich, 1995). Privacy is…