Workplace Monitoring: Methods, Ethics & Laws

Instructor: Lucinda Stanley

Lucinda has taught business and information technology and has a PhD in Education.

This lesson provides information about the types of workplace monitoring. You'll learn about the legalities of workplace monitoring, what employees should be aware of, and some of the ethical issues involved in workplace monitoring.

The Scope of Workplace Monitoring

Does the thought of workplace monitoring remind you of George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, where secret surveillance monitors everything the citizens of Oceania do. It can certainly be frightening to think that Big Brother is watching everything that you do.

In 1984 by George Orwell, the slogan Big Brother is watching you reminds citizens that they are being constantly watched.
Big Brother is watching you

However, unlike the fictional dictatorship of Oceania, the United States institutes regulations to protect the privacy of its citizens, even in the workplace. These state and federal laws define or limit what employers are allowed to do in terms of workplace monitoring. While state laws can vary greatly by jurisdiction, there are a couple of federal laws worth noting that affect workers across the nation:

  • The Federal Privacy Act, formally known as the Privacy Act of 1974, regulates what personal information the federal government can gather about its citizens as well as how that information is gathered and used.
  • The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA) regulates the gathering and use of information obtained electronically, such as by telephone or computer. It aims to prevent unauthorized access to private communications conducted electronically.

Methods of Workplace Monitoring

With advancements in technology in the past few decades, there's an abundance in the number of ways to monitor employees. Let's look at some of the most common methods by which employers conduct workplace monitoring:

  • Telephone: Employers can monitor or record telephone conversations made on business phones, including personal calls. While the ECPA allows this, some states require that both parties are made aware of the monitoring, either by a message or special tone.
  • Computer: Employers can use software that allows them to access employees' computer screens during use, view hard drives and even monitor keystrokes to determine productivity. Generally, this is legal, as the equipment belongs to the employer. However, union negotiators may limit what employers can do, and federal employees have some protection under the Fourth Amendment. Additionally, specific California laws allow some protection to employees regarding employer access to computers.
  • Mobile Devices: Employers can monitor communications made on mobile equipment they provide to their workers, such as cell phones, smartphones, and laptops. Since this is the employer's equipment, it is legal in most circumstances.
  • Email: Employers can monitor communications made via email when the email tools are provided by the employer. In some cases, even a private email account can be monitored when it is used on a company computer.
  • Social media: Employers may monitor workers' activity on social media sites, and there are no federal laws prohibiting this type of monitoring. Some companies have social media policies that allow them to reprimand workers for posting certain information on social media sites. However, some states prohibit employers from disciplining workers over social media activity.
  • Video: Video monitoring is a common way to deter theft and encourage productivity in the workplace. There are no federal regulations preventing video monitoring in the workplace, with or without the employee's consent. However, some states and negotiated union contracts specify areas where employers are not allowed to monitor, such as locker rooms and bathrooms.
  • Geolocation: This is relatively new method of monitoring. Employers are using Global Positioning Systems in employer-owned vehicles to track the location of their employees. Since the vehicle is the property of the employer, it is completely legal, though new regulations may arise as the method becomes more common.

What does all this boil down to? Ownership is a major factor in workplace monitoring - the employer has a right to monitor how company-owned equipment and resources are used.

Ethics

Each of the monitoring methods above are legal within guidelines set out by various federal and state legislation. However, one question still remains: Is workplace monitoring ethical? If something is ethical, it is acceptable based on society's current belief in what is morally right or wrong. If it is morally unacceptable, it is unethical. Let's review the arguments for both sides when it comes to workplace monitoring:

Workplace monitoring is ethical:

Employers often use workplace monitoring to limit what is known as cyberlollygagging, during which employees use company equipment and time to surf the Internet, update their Facebook statuses, or take care of other personal business. From the employers' point of view, this is stealing company time and resources. Employees are not giving a full day's work, for which they are being paid, which results in lost productivity.

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