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We're amid a seismic shift in workplace practices, and this has opened up questions about employee monitoring ethics.
The steady uptick in remote work options turned into a tidal wave thanks to the growth of remote teams. Being physically present in the office involves oversight to some degree, but monitoring team members working from home raises ethical and privacy concerns.
The idea of having work monitored isn't always a comfortable topic. However, sensitively tackling the issues of employee monitoring ethics can create a more transparent environment with clearer expectations.
There's no doubt that employee monitoring usage has grown. The American Bar Association reports that 80% of major companies participate in workplace monitoring of employee internet usage, phone calls, and email.
The combination of cultural shifts and new technologies has contributed to the rise of employee monitoring software and apps. More and more business tools are popping up to make workplace monitoring automated and more accessible than ever.
Further, more business communications are taking place in an environment that can be easily monitored — through email and Slack. As a result, it seems likely inevitable that the practice would grow commonplace.
The reasons some organizations use employee monitoring include:
Business owners have heard for years that data-driven decisions will give them a competitive edge. Monitoring employee productivity and workforce analytics has become a source of critical data.
Employers can use this productivity data to improve existing processes or provide training for employees. A monitoring program can find gaps in productivity that point to a need for more fundamental changes in business practices.
For instance, if team members tend to be less productive as the week goes by, maybe it's time to add more breaks or schedule less intensive tasks on Thursdays and Fridays.
A less controversial workplace monitoring solution is controlled access — think of biometric scanners and keycards. These technological solutions can protect against security threats when combined with video surveillance.
For businesses that handle sensitive information on behalf of clients, monitoring is even more critical. Assurances that the workplace has security monitoring play a crucial part in establishing trust and maintaining a competitive edge.
Though workplace monitoring can become a technology-fueled form of micromanagement, it doesn't have to be invasive surveillance. Monitoring can help you discover systems to automate. Automating time-consuming and costly day-to-day processes can simplify workflows and reduce costs.
Though there are pros and cons to employee monitoring, you’ll need to weigh the benefits versus potential interpersonal risks.
As business owners balance their desire for workplace monitoring with their employees' expectation of privacy and rights to their personal data, federal law offers a starting point for employee monitoring ethics.
The primary federal law guiding these decisions is the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA). The Society for Human Resource Management explains that it is "the only federal law that directly governs the monitoring of electronic communications in the workplace."
The ECPA provides comprehensive safeguards for employees' rights to private communications. The details, however, show a host of exceptions to these general protections. Those exceptions include the following:
If a company can show a legitimate business purpose for monitoring communications, it can be permitted under the ECPA.
When given employee consent, companies have broad allowances for monitoring employee communications. With employee consent, which many companies set as a condition of employment, employers can even monitor personal communications. This scope even can include private communications on social media.
The definition within the ECPA applies to "electronic" communications. But courts have interpreted this to be different from "stored" communication.
These rulings have given companies broad allowances for searching through employee communications after transmission, such as emails that have been sent and received.
The federal regulations surrounding employee monitoring can provide for some monitoring practices. Even without employee consent, businesses have the freedom to monitor business-related communications.
It's important to note that individual states can (and have) set regulations above and beyond those in the ECPA. For example, Connecticut has passed legislation protecting team members' privacy.
An individual business may start with the ECPA's provisions and privacy laws as a guideline. But they should not be the only driving force behind employee monitoring ethics and decision-making — companies should consult their employees about their comfort level and peace of mind.
Being ethical requires companies to do more than simply follow governmental regulations. Taking leadership with monitoring will alleviate ethical concerns and protect personal privacy through fair, transparent, and justifiable policies. Consider these best practices:
A solid monitoring policy will be:
Specific: Avoid vague statements like, "We may monitor communications." Be precise instead. Consider phrases like, "We may record and log emails sent via company messaging platforms, including email and business direct message inboxes."
Limited: Determine which activities and communications genuinely need to be monitored. Then, craft a monitoring policy that is limited to these devices and circumstances. Accountability is a two-way street — a blanket policy won't build trust with your employees.
Relevant: Employees who work remotely may be using personal devices. But employees who work exclusively from the office may only need to be monitored on company computers. Make sure that your policy is relevant to all types of employees, and differentiate where necessary.
Whether or not a workplace monitoring policy is ethical will depend on how it is delivered. Once you have established a fully defined and reasonable policy, make it easy to reference and understand. The policy should be:
Accessibly written: Ensure that your policy is written in a way that employees can easily understand. Use clear and straightforward language. All updates to the policy must be in writing, and you should notify employees whenever it's changed.
Detailed: The document should include details of monitoring policies on internet usage, screenshots, employee email, and video surveillance. Include details and limitations.
Available: This written document should be readily available to all employees at any time. Provide access to digital copies of the policy. Also, give employees printed copies at the point of hire and whenever you update it.
Agreed upon: Be sure to discuss the policy with your team and come to an agreement before implementing it.
The tools available for workplace monitoring can make it tempting to take the practice to the extreme. But employee monitoring ethics require you to limit your policy's scope. Focus solely on the metrics necessary for successfully running the business. Standard metrics that are valuable and justified include:
Employee productivity: Monitoring productivity can sometimes be valid for those working remotely. You may want to track what websites staff visit, helping them avoid time-wasting traps like social media platforms.
Employee performance: All businesses benefit from ensuring their employees are performing necessary duties adequately. Monitoring work-related communications and company devices may aid in that goal. For instance, GPS tracking software can keep teams safe and ensure they're not stopping off at places they shouldn't go while on call.
Business-related data: Personal data, such as credit card info and non-work messages, should always remain confidential. Ensure that protecting business assets doesn't override your employee's right to privacy.
An ethical policy must deliberately prevent discriminatory practices. Though different parts of the policy might apply to different groups (for example, between the remote worker group and the office worker group), avoid exceptions — even for leaders.
For example, let's say that a laborer workforce is made up of minority ethnicities. But, in this hypothetical case, their management workforce is mostly ethnic majority groups. If only one of these groups is required to be monitored, you may be engaging in questionable ethics. It can create a hostile work environment or lead to accusations of discrimination.
Biased and unfair targeting can be insidious. So it is not enough to intend to avoid discriminatory practices. Instead, you must be consistent and intentional in employee monitoring practices.
Getting your employee monitoring policy right matters.
Employees who feel they are the target of unfair monitoring are much more likely to distrust the company and be less engaged at work.
The impact on employee morale can be severe. Those who think they're facing an invasion of privacy are likely to:
File complaints with the human resources department
Harbor resentment toward superiors
File a lawsuit
Look for another position
It can be challenging to overcome a hostile work environment, and employee morale impacts everything from productivity to retention.
If your policy is not legally or ethically sound, it can also open the company to fines and legal challenges. Using employee monitoring ethics to adopt solid practices can protect against these consequences.
The right employee monitoring software helps ensure legal compliance and consideration of employee monitoring ethics while allowing companies to implement electronic tracking that serves their specific needs.
These monitoring systems provide real-time data on remote employee activity and computer usage.
Best practices in ethical employee monitoring insist on a fair, transparent, and focused sets of policies and processes.
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