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Employment rights: Monitoring employees at work
The use being made by management of modern technology for the surveillance of employees in the workplace casts some doubts on the claims for mutual trust associated with many contemporary human resource departments.
Any form of employee monitoring system represents a complex intervention in the workplace. These systems are lifeless but are perceived to be controllers in their own right. And when such monitoring does take place with the use of modern technology, these systems become more superior until they become monsters in the office.
The use of modern technology can both have a positive and a negative effect on an organisation. Most human resource departments of organisations of today base their human resource programs on trust and confidence building measures. Employers need to give assurances to their employees about the end results or company outputs – whether good or bad. Employees need to give quality service and commitment back to their employers and to the organisation in general. As such, no human resource program or any business strategy could ever succeed without both parties sacrificing and trusting the other and work as a system.
As employers begin to use modern technology to ensure that business goals are met, they also begin to take notice of the power that technology can do to take control of their valuable resources. When that happens, mutual trust between employers and their employees also begin to be shrouded with uncertainty. Some may result in good measure but some may end up with disastrous consequences. And regardless of the outcome of such measures, the foundation of trust which binds and links both the employers and their employees might be shaken. Sometimes, employers are in a bind and as much as they want to trust their employees, they also don’t want them (the employees) to take advantage of the situation either.
Employer and Employee Rights
Employers decide on which business strategies to take. They also have the right to freely monitor their employees at work. They need to keep track of their resources and protect their business interests in all legal and technological way possible. Employee activities (whether business or personal) can be continuously monitored with or without the employee’s knowledge. Eventually, cracks may begin appear. Gaps may become more evident. And both sides may begin to be eaten by all the negative issues that could escalate to epic proportions. Some amount of surveillance and monitoring may be necessary to successfully evaluate organizational performance. However, the excessive use by employers of such surveillance activities may have their drawbacks. Employees may end up feeling abused of their privacy and freedom. Data collected from such surveillance activities may end up in the wrong hands. It can also be used in the future to incriminate offenders.
There has to be a way to temper these activities so that it will not violate employee rights to privacy while the surveillance activities themselves achieve the organisation’s human resources goals. There also has to be regulation on all fronts.
According to Kimball (2000), organisations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are pushing to create laws that would govern the monitoring of employees in the workplace. This organisation is not completely against employee monitoring per se but are lobbying and working to allow the creation of laws and workplace policies that would prevent employers from abusing employee’s rights to privacy. The best workplace policy, with respect to monitoring, needs to consider the value of creating a pleasant working environment, as well as what is legally defensible and not just for control purposes.
Employee monitoring, whether for performance evaluation or for control and protection, has legal and social implications. Legally, an employer has broad latitude to monitor workers, but employees don’t always see it that way, according to a recent survey of 520 employees and 323 managers (Does Workplace Surveillance Help Security or Does it Go Too Far? 2005, p.7).
According to Wen et al (2007, p.185), while monitoring could seem like an intrusion into the privacy of an employee, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) gives employers a legal right to protect themselves from possible business harm and crimes by monitoring all e-mail and Internet activities on the company systems. But sometimes, such rulings can be interpreted in different ways and contexts by different countries. In Switzerland for example, the Swiss Federal Court made a surprise ruling on employee monitoring after a worker at a Swiss fire extinguisher maintenance company complained about a GPS tracking system installed on his vehicle. Article 26 of the Swiss Federal Workplace Ordinance prohibits all systems for control or for monitoring of employees (Switzerland: Ruling on Monitoring Workers on International News, 2004).
Surveillance Types and Tools
Organisations use many types of surveillance technologies to monitor employee performance and employee behavior. One of the modern surveillance tools commonly available and accessible nowadays is the computer. Hardware and software combined can form part of a lethal dose of effective surveillance activities. In fact, one does not have to spend that much money, time, and effort in order to undertake such activities. There is a wide range of monitoring software ranging from downloadable freeware for individual systems to integrated enterprise editions. With the vast array of tools available and their ease of installation and use, most computer surveillance hardware and software can be implemented in-house in the shortest possible time.
Special application programs can be used to view employee’ screens while they are working. Some programs can look remotely at the contents of an employee’s hard disk. Some monitor and count keystrokes. Software can also monitor and log the time that a computer remains idle or monitor the time that an application was opened so that time spent at the desk working on the computer can be evaluated. Some programs can send exact copies of employee emails, chats, instant messages, and usage of sensitive words and phrases to a specified e-mail address instantaneously (Wen et al, 2007).
In the workplace, it is not enough that tools and equipment are readily available. One has to have special privileges and access to other employee’s files and email accounts in order to snoop. Employers can gain access to email servers and view their employee’ email contents without their knowledge. Web sites not related to the business functions of the organisation can be blocked. Sites visited by employees can be logged and viewed back by network administrators. Keywords can be filtered before they leave the company’s network. The list continues to grow as new tools are being introduced into the market. Consider electronic time-management systems which allow managers to look at their employees’ schedules and book appointments. Improvements in communication technologies (such as landline and mobile phones) allow management (and even governments) to monitor and tap into calls. Is this not a form of monitoring and control?
There are drawbacks in the business sense to these activities. According to Saran (2007), companies should not lock desktops behind the company firewall. If employees live behind the corporate firewall, they will be cut off from the capabilities of the web. They will have only expensive, restricted-band-width network access. Business pressures will drive firms to “live on the web”. The study recommended that companies avoid treating their employees or even customers as a single homogeneous segment. Instead, organisations should give staff and customers greater responsibility and flexibility to create business value and foster an atmosphere of innovation and creativity.
Wen et al (2007) adds that recent improvements in computer and surveillance technologies make covert employee monitoring physically even more possible and even more discrete. This is more frightening for employees because it emboldens and empowers their employers to further their cause and make it more difficult for the latter to inform the former of such ongoing activities.
Mutual Trust versus Business Gain
According to Irving and Higgins (1991, p. 156), at American Express, a computer measures the time taken to answer and process client call. The company reports an overall productivity rise of 5% a year. A similar system is used by Air Canada to rate the productivity of their reservations clerk, and gains of 4%-5% have been reported since monitoring was introduced (Irving & Higgins, 1991).
Beyond these numbers, human resource experts say that it is best to moderate employer interest in surveillance with an acknowledgement that employees want privacy, even in the workplace and even if they are using the resources and tools that belong to the employer (Tips on keeping workplace surveillance from going too far 2006, p.10).
Accordingly, employers may win some battles against their employees with regards to the misuse of their company resources but risk eroding the foundation of trust and commitment which form part of an organisation’s vital ingredient in the employer to employee relationship. At a time when there is much competition for a skilled and competent workforce that can deliver, the last thing employers want to do in the current setting is to establish an atmosphere of fear and mistrust, which could drive away their valuable workers to their competitors or to other organisations.
Monitoring activities may gradually erode employee confidence in the system put in place and in the organisation itself in the long term. In the short to medium term, the benefits may easily be seen through improved employee performance and better business outputs. However, as data gathered from employee monitoring activities accumulates to a certain extent and the need to upgrade surveillance activities continue to grow (due to its initial success); employees tend to become wary of the monitoring purpose and intent.
According to a report made by Ioma, the level of employer monitoring has grown steadily as monitoring technology has improved. For example, video monitoring to counter theft, violence, and sabotage, which is not in place at more than half of all companies in a survey made in 2001 has increased (Does Workplace Surveillance Help Security or Does it Go Too Far? 2005, p.7). In 2005, a survey found that 76% of companies monitor connections to Websites by employees, 65% of companies’ block inappropriate Websites using URL blocking software and 55% retain and review email messages (2005 Electronic monitoring and surveillance survey: Many companies monitoring, recording, videotaping-and firing-Employees 2005).
In addition to that report, psychology experts agree that widespread spying on one another is not only harmful to one’s health but it also harms and intensifies the loops of distrust. In some organisations, efforts to implement data and company security measures may even be jeopardized. Employees’ desire for privacy risk hurting the security culture more than helping it. In this sense, widespread distrust is seen as damaging employee support for these efforts and even empowers employees to act dishonestly.
The Security Director’s Report (Does Workplace Surveillance Help Security or Does it Go Too Far? 2005, p.10) adds that surveillance can increase employee stress, undermine morale, and cause employees to resent management. It can foster discord and instead of bridging the existing gaps between management and their employees, surveillance activities may bring in more skepticisms and gaps. Studies have shown that all factors contribute to employee dishonesty.
A good note to point out here is that not all monitoring activities are a source of mistrust. In fact, some companies are able to build new communication strategies around people tracking. Accenture has 130 employees in different research labs in Chicago, Palo Alto, and South of France and about half have agreed to be tracked throughout the day by a combination of technologies which include radio signals and web cameras. It may sound like a sly scheme by the company but mistrust has nothing to do with it. In fact, the company’s goal is to foster better collaboration between employees who are constantly moving (Freedman, 2006 p.2).
In whatever form and in whatever purpose it intends to serve, the use of modern technology to monitor employees are here to stay. It is up to government regulators, legislators, employers, and employees to be made aware of the power of such activities in their organisations and in society. They should also be perceptive of the issues resulting from the use of such activities. It will help resolve some issues in the workplace but it will not totally eradicate them all. There is no doubt modern technology has greatly improved for the last couple of years. In the aspect of employee monitoring, this has become a boon to employers’ efforts to help evaluate employee performance and control the use of their valuable resources but it has become a bane to employees who are constantly pressured to perform. In today’s competitive business environments, the reality is that employee monitoring will always have mixed results. It can always be a tool to help achieve the organisation’s business objectives. On the other side, it can also bring about issues which can put to question a workforce’s faith in the organisation, and society as well.
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 ‘Switzerland: Ruling on Monitoring Workers’ (2004), International News, People Management, vol. 10 Issue 18, p11-11, 1/2p. Retrieved: August 13, 2007 from Business Source Premier.
 Cliff, Saran (2007),’Work beyond firewall, CIOs urged’, Computer Weekly. Retrieved: August 12, 2007 from Business Source Premier.
 Irving, Richard & Higgins, Christopher (1991), Office Information Systems: Management Issues ad Methods, John Wiley and Sons, Singapore.
 ‘Tips on keeping workplace surveillance from going too far’ (2006), HR Focus, vol. 83 Issue 1, p10-13.
 ‘2005 Electronic monitoring and surveillance survey: Many companies monitoring, recording, videotaping-and firing-Employees’, (2005), American Management Association. Retrieved: August 13,, 2007 from http://www.amanet.org/press/amanews/em05.htm
 Freedman, David (2006), ‘New Software Makes it Possible to Monitor Employees and Clients: It’s not as creepy as it sounds’, INC Magazine, vol. 28 Issue 5, p73-74, 2p. Retrieved: August 12, 2007 from Business Source Premier.
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