Modern technology makes it possible for firms to monitor many aspects of the workplace, particularly employee activities and performance. Most monitoring systems used are electronic, including computer terminals, e-mail, Internet, telephone and smartphone systems, GPS, drones, and others. Challenges to workplace monitoring appear in the arena of employee rights and privacy legislation.
The practice of monitoring employees at work is known as “workplace monitoring.” According to the US Office of Technology Assessment, workplace monitoring is the collection, storage, analysis, and reporting of information about workers' activities.
The introduction of computers and other telecommunication technologies in the workplace brought great changes to monitoring practices. Workplace monitoring includes a wide variety of technologies, such as hidden or overt video cameras, global positioning systems (GPS), landline telephones, cell phones and smartphones, computer software and systems, the Internet, and drones. Many techniques have been developed to improve workplace monitoring. For example, packet sniffers are computer programs that can analyze communication flow across networks and intercept malicious files. Many businesses monitor all network traffic passing through their servers. Automatic programs can alert managers if a networked computer connects to a malicious domain, block particular websites, and scan e-mails for spam.
Many organizations monitor their workers in order to protect their property and information, protect employees, and measure the quality of their work and productivity. However, employers must also be mindful of legal and ethical considerations of workplace monitoring. Employers must work to maintain a sense of trust in their employees when engaging in monitoring. Monitoring practices can generate negative feeling among employees and create legal problems for the employer if they are not implemented carefully.
Further complicating the issue is the increasingly fluid nature of workplace boundaries. For instance, work is often spread across geographical spaces. Many employers have a large number of employees who work away from headquarters, either because they travel or work remotely. This has led to remote monitoring by way of varied technologies and devices, including GPS and drones.
Moreover, a growing amount of work is computerized, through intranet and Internet networks. As a result, employers face real risks of employee misuse of these systems. However, these same systems have led to improvements in workplace monitoring technology.
Hundreds of software programs and other technologies are available to monitor the workplace. Some of these programs are free. Companies can establish their own monitoring systems. Others prefer to hire firms that provide the technology and analyze the data. The data retrieved by monitoring technologies may be used to identify information leaks or theft, evaluate employee performance, detect malware, or analyze business trends. Among the latest monitoring technologies are drones. Drones are mainly used in real estate, construction, and agriculture.
There are many ways in which electronic workplace monitoring is used. According to the American Management Association, 78 percent of major companies in the United States reported monitoring employee use of e-mail, Internet, or phone in 2015. Some employers also use monitoring technology in order to measure employee performance by measuring time spent at the computer or keystroke speed.
The increasing breadth of workplace monitoring has raised ethical and legal concerns. On the balance are the privacy rights of workers. Electronic workplace monitoring has become so common that labor rights advocates have raised concerns about the abuse or inappropriate use of monitoring practices. On the other hand, employers are concerned about liability costs and legal consequences.
In the opinion of some experts, electronic workplace monitoring is subject to insufficient government regulation. This may be due to its constant innovations and its relatively new status. Technically, employers are legally allowed to listen to, watch over, record, and read all work-related forms of communication. However, federal law stipulates that personal calls cannot be monitored.
Debate continues about what employers should be allowed to monitor and to what extent employees have the right to know they are being monitored. Nevertheless, employees should always assume that they are being monitored and keep all private or personal communication in separate accounts and devices.
—Trudy Mercadal, PhD
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