Employee Privacy Rights in the Workplace Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

privacy in the workplace encourages contempt.

Legitimate Limits

Economic reasons for supervision.

Reasons of inter-employee, and employee-customer safety.

Reasons of performance.

Definition of excessive supervision/invasion of privacy.

Examples of excessive supervision/invasions of privacy.

Legal consequences/ramifications.

Effects of legal yet employee-perceived insufficient privacy.

Effects on performance

Effects on Morale

Possible psychological/health effects

Ultimate Employee Contempt results from:

Illegal/unethical supervision and invasion of privacy.

Legal yet excessive supervision/surveillance or what employees view as excessive invasion of privacy.

Conclusion: Employees view invasion of privacy with contempt that transfers to contempt for employers and supervisors.

Employer Surveillance, Lack of Privacy and Employee Contempt

In today's modern age, employers across the board have begun to resort to increasingly invasive methods to monitor the performance and behavior of their employees. Previously a realm of banks and retail establishments, employee monitoring has become the norm in most large and many small businesses -- aimed at everything from promoting employee professionalism, preventing theft and asset loss, reducing legal liability, improving productivity and customer service. However, like many things, utilizing the various (and increasing) methods of employee surveillance can also have significant and damaging effects upon the morale, and even performance of employees. Even worse, allowing legitimate surveillance to lapse into unfounded infringement upon employee privacy, legal or not, can cause nothing short of contempt within the workforce.

There is little doubt that companies and employers worldwide have very legitimate reasons for monitoring their employees. These may include using monitoring to protect company and trade secrets, avoiding legal issues (providing proof against various legal charges, and preventing employee misbehaviors that may result in a lawsuit against the company), increasing worker productivity, and preventing staff from using company times and/or assets inappropriately. Unfortunately, the limits of appropriate monitoring vs. employee privacy rights can be vague legally as well as conceptually. However, there have been some legal limits set at both the state and federal level that are widely accepted.

One of the most widespread methods of employee supervision is through the monitoring of telephone usage. Although once practiced mainly in the realm of telephone marketing or customer service, many companies are increasingly monitoring all aspects of telephone usage under a "loophole" to the Federal Wiretapping Act, which "allows surreptitious monitoring in the 'ordinary course of business' (Lewis, 2001)." However, here, it is important to note that the employer does not have unlimited freedom under this law, and must demonstrate that the monitoring is, in fact, necessary for maintaining the smooth process of business -- i.e., necessary for monitoring employee/customer quality, protecting against the disclosure of trade secrets, etc.

Another legitimate method employers use to monitor their employees involves motoring electronic communications like email. Although, like telephone monitoring, monitoring email is not legal in any case, but must be justified "in the ordinary course of business," "...for the provider of the communication service or for situations where one of the parties to the communication gives prior consent (Lewis)." As long as the email is sent over a company internet account, the employee is normally considered not to have an "expectation of privacy (Lewis)."

Of course, one of the most infamous practices many employers utilize in ensuring good employee productivity is monitoring of internet use -- particularly using technologies such as "key logging" and the recording of specific web-sites visited and time spent on those sites. Further, allowing an open environment in which employees are permitted to view and download inappropriate or offensive material from the internet, perhaps in view of co-workers or even used to email or forward (off-color jokes for example), can provide the basis for a potentially costly and damaging sexual harassment claim against the employer or company.

Finally, video monitoring is perhaps the most commonly thought of form of employee monitoring in the workplace. Although there are several legitimate reasons employers might monitor their employees and/or the work environment (foremost among them as protection against criminal activity such as robbery or theft), it can easily cross the line into a feeling of "intrusiveness." As a matter of fact, according to the National Work Rights Institute, "Cameras are everywhere in the American workplace, advanced wireless and digital systems that are compact and often hidden. In fact 49.9% of American offices and workspaces are monitored in this way." Even more striking, "Few legal restrictions are placed on their use. Indeed some states even allow cameras in sensitive locations such as employee locker rooms and bathrooms (NWI, 2000)." Indeed, in such an atmosphere, it is easy to see how such technology might be abused or considered to be offensive to employee sensibilities.

In fact, although all of the above examples of employee surveillance can be legitimately justified by employers, there are significant drawbacks to employee surveillance that must be considered. Consider, for example, the findings of the U.S. Congress's Office of Technology Assessment publication, The Electronic Supervisor: New Technology, New Tensions (1987). In the work, the office found that the central issues of concern from employees regarding workplace monitoring are "questions of fairness, dignity, autonomy, and control." Further, much emphasis is given to "unfair or abusive monitoring, "usually focused on questions like high or increasing quotas, inappropriate work standards or punitive use of monitoring information by supervisors."

Although these issues of "employee feelings" may seem on the surface (at least from the employer's point-of-view) to be of little importance, the truth is that extremely serious issues from an employer point-of-view exist with regard to the serious drawbacks of employee monitoring -- especially when that monitoring is viewed with resentment on the part of the employee. Indeed, in the Electronic Supervisor report, the Congressional Office found that there are several drawbacks of electronic monitoring, including possible links between stress and health issues, decreased productivity, and higher rates of absenteeism.

Further, and perhaps most interesting, many studies suggest that using monitoring to improve productivity may in fact decrease worker productivity due to low morale and a feel of an adversarial relationship between employee and employer that may, in fact, contribute to deliberate low productivity levels (Houston, Barnes, Keynes, 1999). Further, according to a website published by Stanford University, Monitoring in the Workplace, Health Concerns, unreasonable worker monitoring can actually impact the mental as well as physical health of employees, to say nothing of morale.

Even if an employer or supervisor is not concerned with the "feelings" or supposed health risks associated with inappropriate levels of employee monitoring, it is clear that there is a significant risk to the employer or company should an atmosphere of contempt be allowed to develop. Unfortunately, according to Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, this is exactly the risk many companies run. According to Rotenberg, "There's an incredible lack of privacy rights for employees," and "...dissatisfaction and anger will be an inevitable result of any technology that's seen as intrusive (James, 2004)."

Indeed, the effects of anger and contempt toward an employer or company cannot be dismissed as trivial. The simple fact is that a disgruntled employee can do much to damage the "bottom line" of the company -- be it through obvious or passive means. For example, as stated previously, highly monitored employees are documented as having a much higher rate of absenteeism. Over time this trend alone is likely to cost a company significantly in terms of increased sick leave costs. Further, as morale dips, so does productivity. The simple fact is "honest, hardworking employees don't like being spied on, and ultimately, companies will feel the backlash...Employers will find that Big Brother surveillance is not the way to motivate (Wetanson, 2003)."

In conclusion, although it may seem legitimate and even extremely useful for employers to use surveillance to monitor their employees, be it through video, internet, telephone, or other forms of electronic surveillance, the benefits may not always be cut and dry…

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