Companies are learning there is a fine line between monitoring their employees and using
surveillance to uncover illegal or unwanted behavior. While they are within their legal rights to
monitor and observe the actions of their employees, they must be mindful not to cross the line
and intentionally intrude on employee’s private and personal matters. Legal and ethical issues
can affect how managerial concerns within the workplace are handled. Management must
effectively balance concern for the workplace with legal and ethical responsibilities associated
with an employee’s right to privacy.
The Employee’s Legal Right to Privacy
An employee has a legal right to privacy within the workplace when it comes to their
personal possessions. Purses, briefcases, and privately owned cell phones are theirs alone and
cannot be tampered with by members of management. However, businesses that allow
employees to use company owned computers, telephones and other electronics can legally
monitor all transmissions and communications an employee makes on company time (Schulman,
1998). Stipulations are present that determine when and how such information can be used.
Management is permitted to monitor communication between employees made over
company computers and telephones in accordance with the law to help protect the company
and its assets. Every new hire for the company should be presented with a policy that clearly
states the level of privacy they can expect while performing their duties in the workplace. Every
employee must then sign a statement that verifies they understand their right to privacy within
the workplace, as well as the rights of the company to monitor such communications.
Cyberloafing and How It Affects Performance
One of the newest issues affecting the performance of employees in the workplace is
surfing the web for personal use during work hours, which is also known as “cyberloafing.”
Reading articles, watching videos, interacting on social forums and chatting with friends all fall
into this category. While none of these activities may pose a security threat to a company, the
employee is spending company time, which should be being used to perform their duties.
Many companies stipulate that if employees have completed the jobs that have been
assigned to them, they can find something else to do. Most members of management would
encourage an employee to see if there were work related tasks that need to be finished instead
of wasting the company’s financial resources by surfing the internet (Mujtaba, 2012). Likewise,
companies can place strict limits on the amount of time that can be spent on the internet during
business hours. They can also place firewalls on the servers that prevent employees from
accessing certain sites or downloading specific websites such as messengers and chat rooms.
Conditions When an Employer can invade a Worker’s “Privacy”
There are specific conditions that allow employers to invade a worker’s privacy within
the workplace. Allegations made by other co-workers that pertain to the possible theft or
misconduct of an employee may be determined to be a valid reason for an employer to monitor
or observe an employee. However, the allegations made must be accompanied by evidence that
gives the accusation some credibility.
There are numerous ways in which a company may monitor an employee suspected of
misconduct, including monitoring any company-owned electronics that the employee may use,
such as a computer, telephone, or cellphone. Many companies have software in place that can
monitor key strokes on company computers and listen in on phone conversations. While a
company cannot listen in on a person’s personal cell phone, they can listen to conversations
occurring on their telephones and computers. If problems arise when discussing trade secrets or
other confidential information, the company is within its legal write to terminate an employee if
it the company can prove the employee willingly disregarded company policy.
Maintaining a Level of Trust
Trust in the workplace is earned. An employee expects some level of privacy from their
employer while performing their duties. When they begin to feel as if they are under
surveillance, rather than simple and normal observation, the level of trust they have with their
employee begins to falter. Companies normally do deem it necessary to have their employees
under constant watch and do not make a full-fledged effort to track their employees’ every move.
The company may monitor emails distributed through the company’s email system as
well as communication of inter-office telephone calls. Tracking such communications is not a
direct attempt to put an employee under surveillance. Surveillance, rather, includes monitoring
an employee’s actions both inside and outside of the workplace. In most cases, this type of
observation is unnecessary and illegal, and therefore avoided by employers.
Communication and trust are both valuable within the workplace. Therefore,
management should pursue discussing any issues with employees rather than performing
surveillance, which can feel like an invasion of privacy for the employee. Any actions taken by
the employer must be within their legal parameters. Likewise, the rights of both the employer
and the employee should be understood regarding privacy issues in the workplace.
Implementing Written Guidelines
To meet legal guidelines, employers or companies must notify employees that their
actions may be monitored while they are at work. This is typically done in writing when the
employee first signs-on with the company. This notification informs the employee that the
company routinely inspects and monitors any transmissions sent from company’s electronic
devices including computers, telephones, and cell phones. It is essential for the employee to sign
a form that states they were presented with and had read the guidelines put in place by the
company regarding the use of spy ware and other software to determine what records key stroke
technology and the company’s ability to monitor and retrieve any communication or message
sent through a company device.
Providing a written explanation of the practices a company uses in regards to privacy in
the workplace, is a valuable tool. Not only does it protect the employee, but it also protects the
company. Employees who know and understand what they are allowed to do within the scope of
the Privacy Act rarely waste company resources and try their best to follow protocols that have
already been established. Having the rules written down in front of them can help deter
employees from crossing the line when the computer is used to communicate sensitive
information between co-workers.
When a company revises or develops new protocols concerning their employee’s privacy
within the work place, members of management must always remember to discuss professionally
with all parties involved. Employees must sign a revised document anytime a change is made
Privacy in the workplace has undergone some major changes in the last two or three
decades. Employees have rights pertaining to their privacy in the workplace, to a certain extent.
Employers are not permitted to monitor or track any personal electronic devices, bags, etc.
However, the employer is granted some rights regarding the monitoring of an employee’s use of
company property, especially when such monitoring is essential in keeping the company on track
and successful. Many companies are required to implement some of these tracking and
monitoring devices and software due to the nature of the information being transmitted between
employees. Whenever such practices are necessary there should be established protocols
associated with an employee’s right to privacy, which are agreed upon by both the employer and
the employee. Having set protocols and following them can reduce tension within the workplace
and begin to build trust between employees and management.
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