Monitoring employees in the workplace is not a new concept. For a long time now, companies have been using video surveillance to view what goes on at the workplace. Amazon even built its own tracking technology to observe trucker safety and possible violations.
In this article, we tell you how to strike the right balance between workplace monitoring and employee privacy. We also explore the laws and ethics regarding employee privacy rights.
How Common Is Employee Monitoring in the Workplace?
According to recent data by ExpressVPN, nearly 80 percent of major companies use a form of surveillance to keep a digital eye on their employees.
This practice of user behavior monitoring seems to be more widespread than imagined. A 2018 survey by Crowd Research Partners found that 94 percent of organizations deployed some method of employee monitoring. This marked a sharp increase in worker surveillance, up from 42 percent the previous year.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a massive increase (54 percent) in the demand for employee monitoring software.
Of course, there are good reasons to monitor employees in the workplace. It can help prevent inappropriate behavior, boost productivity, prevent data loss and guard against IT threats. However, employee monitoring has its dark sides too. The same ExpressVPN study found that 59 percent of employees report feeling stress and anxiety about being surveilled.
The real risk to companies that implement monitoring, however, is that it threatens to violate employee privacy rights. Given the sensitivity and complexity of this matter, employers, therefore, must implement the best practices of worker monitoring in the workplace. Otherwise, they may face serious consequences like low morale, productivity loss, and legal issues.
Types of Employee Monitoring
Thanks to ever-advancing technology, organizations are now enacting various surveillance measures that seem to be from outer space. A good example is Three Square Market, a Wisconsin-based vending machine manufacturer. It made the news for implanting microchips in almost 80 percent of its workforce.
The microchips allowed workers to log on to computers and open secure doors simply by waving their hands. Even so, the microchips were voluntary and didn’t track employees’ movements.
For some Chinese workers, the case was quite different. The Times reported that a section of Chinese companies installed sensors on workers’ helmets and hats to scan their brainwaves to detect fatigue and stress. One company supposedly used these readings to detect when a worker needed a break. Who knows what the other companies do with the data.
Organizations now seem to be devising bizarre (and sometimes obtrusive) methods to monitor their workforce. For most companies, however, employee surveillance isn’t that extreme.
According to a 2019 American Management Association report, these are the most common forms of workplace monitoring:
- Internet usage. Employers are concerned about what employees are doing online, with 66 percent monitoring internet activity. Employee monitoring software can track web and app activity and show you the time spent on the various websites and applications. This can help recognize malicious data and suspicious network activities. It also ensures the proper use of company resources.
- Email monitoring. For most businesses, communication takes place via email. That’s why emails are monitored to minimize security risks, breach of confidentiality, excessive personal use, and policy violations.
- Video surveillance. Video surveillance is used mostly for security purposes rather than actual employee monitoring. However, some companies use video surveillance to keep track of a worker’s location, real-time activities, and customer misconduct.
- Phone calls and voicemail. Usually, employers monitor calls for quality control purposes. Some do so to deter misuse of the company’s phone system for personal gains.
- GPS tracking. GPS (location) tracking is becoming an increasingly popular way of monitoring employees’ whereabouts. It’s also used to verify if they punched the clock from where they should.
- Keylogging. Keyloggers record every keystroke an employee makes on the computer and are intended to keep them focused. However, some workers are worried that this might also reveal their passwords.
- Screen capture and video. Most employers simply want to track work progress and ensure that a worker is focusing on the right priorities. Some apps take random screenshots every 10 minutes that show what a person is working on. A reliable employee monitoring software respects the workers’ privacy and intentionally blurs the screenshots to make any sensitive details ineligible.
A study by StandOut CV provides further insight into what’s being monitored. The survey shows that 94 percent of monitoring tools track the time employees spend on tasks. Another 75 percent can take screenshots of employees’ desktops, and 59 percent report on keyboard and mouse movements.
Employee Monitoring and Workplace Privacy Law
Certainly, employee monitoring and tracking software can be used to boost workplace productivity. However, before you implement it, you must understand the federal and state laws surrounding the use of monitoring tools.
Generally, the law permits employers to use discretion in how they want to employ monitoring programs. The privacy regulations vary greatly in different regions globally. In the US, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986 is the primary federal law that governs employees’ privacy rights under workplace monitoring.
For example, it allows employers to track verbal and written communication legally. Even so, the company must provide a legitimate business reason to do so and the employee must give consent.
On top of the federal laws, several states have their own regulations that employers must follow. Take Connecticut, for instance. It has laws that require employers to let employees know, in writing, the details of monitoring methods used.
Other states like Florida, California, Louisiana, and South Carolina explicitly state that residents have a right to privacy. In other words, employers in these states need to tread carefully when installing employee monitoring solutions.
How to Balance Workplace Monitoring and Employee Privacy
Business owners and managers nowadays use various remote working tools to help streamline workflows and track workers’ performance. Time tracking apps, for example, may be used to ensure proper time management, and some are integrated with employee monitoring features.
As an employer, you are obligated to protect all the information you collect. So, how can you implement employee monitoring strategies that don’t compromise the privacy of your workers?
1. Be Transparent
A Dtex Systems survey found that 77 percent of Americans would be comfortable being monitored if employers are transparent about it. So, you must be forthcoming about what you are doing, so employees don’t fear that workplace monitoring software will be used to micromanage them. Otherwise, it can create negative bias, and they may not accept to be monitored.
To be fully transparent, an organization must inform its employees what is being monitored, why it’s being monitored, and how it’s being monitored. Doing so enables your staff to make an informed decision on computer usage.
2. Get Buy-In
As a boss, you may think you don’t need your team’s permission to install a new system. While it’s true, getting team buy-in will make the process of adopting the system way easier. Plus, it has the advantage of not hurting your employees’ trust.
3. Outline the Benefits of Monitoring Employee Activities
Explain to your teams how monitoring can benefit them, which may include:
- Precise time tracking, which translates to accurate payments
- Autonomy for employees, which means managers won’t need to frequently check in
- Recognition for performing employees
4. Know When It’s Too Much
Limit the invasiveness of monitoring technology. Only monitor what’s necessary and use data for its stated purpose. When employees detect a lack of predictability, they may perceive your monitoring techniques as invasive. This will reduce their trust, which can affect morale.
Likewise, avoid monitoring non-work devices even if they use them for work-related purposes.
5. Use Collected Data Fairly
One role of employee monitoring systems is to track user activity. However, just because an employee is inactive, it isn’t a sure sign of disengagement. Things like creative thinking, planning, and work-related phone calls aren’t reflected in user activity data.
Also, avoid using computer activity data to single out employees or as the sole indicator of performance. Such data doesn’t provide the full context of a worker’s productivity. As such, you shouldn’t make significant decisions like promotions or firing someone solely based on employee monitoring data.
6. Create an Employee Monitoring Policy
Include this written policy in your employee handbook and make sure they understand the importance of employee monitoring during onboarding. Most importantly, maintain transparency by giving people access to their data.
This way, they can see what’s being gathered, and they should have the freedom to delete data that they don’t want to be seen. What’s more, a written employee monitoring policy can prove helpful when tackling legal issues associated with workplace privacy.
Monitor Your Employees the Ethical Way
The line is blurry when it comes to monitoring employees and protecting their privacy. When implementing productivity strategies in the workplace, it’s essential to ensure that the entire process is done ethically and lawfully.
On the one hand, employee monitoring can provide valuable insight into your workforce and boost efficiency. On the other, it might invade privacy rights. So, before you start using an employee monitoring system, know this. Workplace privacy and workforce surveillance laws are constantly evolving. That’s why it’s critical to consult legal counsel to ensure you comply with all relevant legislation and union agreements.
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