Employee Surveillance and Monitoring

surveillanceTo state the obvious (and this shows my age), we are way past George Orwell’s 1984. Yes, I know 30 years past it. But we are way past the privacy concerns expressed in Orwell’s book; we are in a new era where technology and instant communications have collided with new privacy concerns.

Companies are fast becoming enamored with quick and easy detection systems for employee misconduct. I regularly hear about company review of employee emails and other communications as a means to identify potential misconduct. About one-half of all US companies monitor employee emails.

In the United States, such surveillance techniques rest on one simple fact – an employee who works for a company sacrifices his or per personal privacy rights (to a certain extent) when they accept employment at the company and then use company communications and computer devices. That premise, however, may be subject to challenge as more states seek to regulate corporate monitoring activities.

For example, company investigators may review an employee’s emails to verify if the employee is engaging in suspected misconduct. Whether or not you believe the practice is appropriate, compliance officers often rely on this technique to confirm or identify employee misconduct.surveillance5

It is interesting how little this issue is raised by employees as a concern. In some respects, our concern for privacy appears to be focused more on government surveillance rather than private surveillance (although there are federal and state statutes prohibiting private wiretapping activities).

The line between appropriate and inappropriate surveillance and monitoring will continue to shift in response to technology capabilities and public sensitivities. We all are disturbed by Internet companies collecting data about our browsing propensities. But if your company engages in such surveillance, do employees really care about the issue?

In many respects, employees give the benefit of the doubt to their employers. Employees want to trust and believe in their employers and therefore are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The question boils down to whether the use of a company asset, like a computer, means that the company owns and is entitled to inspect or monitor all communications on the computer. Companies often draw the line in a black and white fashion – it is our asset and we are entitled to know everything that occurs on our asset.

There is a lot of logic to this view. However, companies have to be careful not to become too righteous and fervent in implementing this attitude. Arrogance always leads to downfall. And companies have to avoid the familiar trap. Employee concerns over so-called monitoring and surveillance activities may become more substantial in the future. Companies cannot just ignore these concerns.

Companies have to attend to their greatest asset – the value of their culture and the trust it brings to its employees. When that bond is threatened, no matter what the legal rights are, companies can lose some of their valuable goodwill.

surveillance4A careful balance has to be maintained. Compliance officers have to be vigorous in rooting out misconduct and investigating employees. However, they also have to balance this against employee culture and trust.

An internal investigation system is a vital part of every Speak Up culture. Without an effective investigation function, employees will not trust the system and report concerns. Employees have to believe in the company’s organization justice program. One glitch in the interdependent steps in the chain of speaking up, investigating and disciplining misconduct, can lead to real harm to the company’s culture.

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  1. June 22, 2015

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