Electronic surveillance of employees is increasing every year, according to the annual Electronic Monitoring and Surveillance Survey, done by the American Management Association (AMA) and The ePolicy Institute annually since 2001. In an earlier article, Surfing the Web at Work, I reviewed the status of employee monitoring and some of the reasons why employers might want to monitor employee email and Internet use. The article also reviewed the consequences both employees and employers are experiencing in the workplace because of inappropriate use of electronic equipment, email, and the Internet.
There are pros and cons about the electronic surveillance of employees at work. This review of the pros and cons of electronic surveillance of employees at work will help employers decide what is best in their organization. Not every workforce, workplace, or work culture and environment is a candidate for electronic surveillance of employees at work.
In fact, in some work environments, depending upon the culture and environment desired, electronic surveillance of employees would injure trust, injure relationships, and send powerfully wrong messages to the workforce.
Pros of Electronic Surveillance of Employees at WorkPowerful reasons exist to monitor employee online behavior at work. These reasons are compelling for many employers and understandable as I observe organizations. In my own experience with electronic surveillance of employees, I walked an employee, who had been watching pornographic movies at work, from his cubicle to his car, just thirty minutes after discovering how he had been spending his time at work. (The appropriate policies prohibiting this behavior were in place and he had been trained.)
In another experience in a client company, employees complained that their supervisor was surfing the Web during most of the business day. The network administrator confirmed that the supervisor was visiting job board sites, doing online banking, shopping, chatting and posting on message boards, reading recipe sites, and spending hours in personal email for over six hours a day. On the day we were prepared to fire this employee, the employee gave notice and we made an agreement about an orderly, mutually beneficial transition.
In yet another experience in a client company, it was discovered that an employee had been doing her ancillary bookkeeping for a personal business on company time, and in her company provided computer. The employee gave notice and was escorted from the premises. The employee later begged to have this material back and the employer kindly provided the records.
With these examples in mind, note that electronic surveillance of employees at work can yield results that are beneficial to the employer. Note also that in none of these three companies was the electronic surveillance of employees practiced. Suspicious behavior by the employees in question prompted the review of electronic records. So, many employers have the capacity to use electronic surveillance of employees, but choose not to practice electronic surveillance.
Additional reasons exist to place employees under electronic surveillance at work.
- Productivity issues are an employer concern.
- The nature of the sites that employees visit concerns employers because of their potential to be seen as creating a hostile work environment. The same problem exists with employee-forwarded email and jokes. Employers want to trust their employees to practice good judgment but my own experiences indicate that they don't always.
Employers are concerned about creating an environment of harassment if employees surf to inappropriate places and share the URLs.
- Employers are concerned about their ability to produce email and Web records to defend against lawsuits:
Litigation is a serious issue to employers said Nancy Flynn, executive director of The ePolicy Institute and author of The ePolicy Handbook, 2nd Edition (AMACOM, 2008) and other Internet-related books. "Concern over litigation and the role electronic evidence plays in lawsuits and regulatory investigations has spurred more employers to monitor online activity." Flynn advised:
"Workers' e-mail and other electronically stored information create written business records that are the electronic equivalent of DNA evidence." Flynn noted that 24% of employers have had email subpoenaed by courts and regulators and another 15% have battled workplace lawsuits triggered by employee email, according to the 2006 AMA / ePolicy research.
"To help control the risk of litigation, security breaches and other electronic disasters, employers should take advantage of monitoring and blocking technology to battle people problems-including the accidental and intentional misuse of computer systems and other electronic resources."