A frequently used argument against email and internet monitoring at work is invasion of privacy. This argument is often uttered by employees who feel that their privacy is, in one way or another, being compromised by monitoring efforts. Is it a legitimate argument? In short: legally no, practically maybe. Let me explain…
Every country has its own set of rules and regulations regarding invasion of privacy but the majority firmly holds that employees have no rights to privacy when using a company machine for private use.
If an employee feels that, for whatever reason, his/her privacy has been invaded two main aspects are important – The employee’s reasonable expectation of privacy, and the employer’s justification for taking the action.
In following hypothetical situations I think we can all agree that there is an existence of high expectation of privacy and very poor justifications.
Your employer secretly installs hidden cameras in all bathrooms and changing areas at work. Your employer never informs anyone he/she is doing this as he/she is driven by control and slight perversion.
After you have filled out latest health questionnaire your employer leaks the answers to your fellow co-workers and drug manufacturers. Why? Because he/she just doesn’t like you and want to earn some extra cash.
Let’s apply the two aspects to workplace internet and email monitoring.
Employees’ expectation of privacy
This day and age it is (or at least should be) common knowledge that employees cannot expect privacy at work whilst using their employers’ computers and online resources. Proactive employers ensure some form of Acceptable Usage Policies are communicated throughout the organization, and might even ask employees sign off on them, to officially ensure everyone is on the same page.
Employer’s justifications for taking the action
This list can be made very long but at a high level employers generally want to monitor employee internet usage to reduce liability and unproductive behavior.
Liability – Employer’s and Employee’s
As employee use of email and the Internet increases, so does the potential for the employer to be held liable for employee misconduct. For example, employers have been sued for copyright infringement when an employee downloaded copyrighted material from the Internet, for racial discrimination when employees circulated offensive emails, and for sexual harassment when employees posted harassing comments on an electronic bulletin board. It is also the employer’s responsibility to protect employees from getting themselves into sticky situations using the internet at work.
Recent research suggests that the average U.S. employee spends approximately six hours a week searching the Internet for personal reasons while at work. At sixty-two percent of U.S. employers, employees surf for sexually explicit materials. The two most frequent search keywords on the Internet are “sex” and “pornography/porno.” Seventy percent of all Internet porn traffic occurs during working hours. It has recently been estimated that the cost to employers from this lack of productivity is $5.3 billion and the average employee wastes about 1.5 hours per day browsing the internet, using computers for personal use, Instant Messaging, social networking etc.
Considering the amount of time, money and potentially damage to reputation and overall work environment, I think we can all agree that employers have just cause AND responsibility to monitor employee internet usage.
Hopefully we can all understand why an employer wants to monitor the use of online resources. We might not be thrilled about it, but can understand and respect it as much as we understand that we shouldn’t call geographically dispersed friends while at work just because we have access to a phone, or print thousands of leaflets for our weekly campaign against fur coats just because we have access to a printer. However, the way an employer goes about monitoring Internet activity will highly affect perception of invasion of privacy.
A bad way of going about it is not being open about monitoring, not explaining exactly what is allowed, when, for how long and what isn’t allowed, trying to catch employees out instead of trying to help them sticking to rules. Sadly this is the case at many organizations. Legally it cannot be classified as invasion of privacy but it will sure make employees feel like their privacy is compromised.
My previous blog on Internet Monitoring Best Practices covers 10 valuable tips of how to undertake effective internet monitoring without upsetting or alienating your employees.