Human Resources and Employee Monitoring Explained

Keylogger software, one of many options businesses can employ in monitoring employees, records every keystroke a user makes on a company-owned computer

Keylogger software, one of many options businesses can employ in monitoring employees, records every keystroke a user makes on a company-owned computer

Time is money – or so goes the long-established credo of the business world. In today’s fast-paced, ever-evolving, high-tech society, this philosophy is more relevant than ever. Interestingly, all our hi-tech advances have given rise to cutting-edge tools companies can use to monitor basically every aspect of the work environment. It’s not difficult to see why businesses might want to use such tools; modern employees face more non-work-related distractions than ever. From smartphones to social networking to the internet in general, a workday distraction – something that pulls the employee away from the on-the-clock task-at-hand – is always just a click, swipe or even a voice command away. Complicating matters, however, is the fact that the line between personal task and professional can often be blurred by the fact both are routinely performed on the same equipment. Keep in mind, too, that employees don’t lose ALL their privacy rights simply because they’re on company time and equipment. They DO lose a great many of those rights, but Human Resource (HR) Departments are nonetheless best advised to take a thoughtful, disciplined, common-sense approach to employee monitoring, taking into account factors such as the work environment, the industry involved and the employee/employer relationships necessary to succeed in the given business sector. Employer and employee alike should also be aware of what of what’s acceptable and legal in terms of employee monitoring and what’s not.

Everything starts in Human Resources

The role of HR in the employee-monitoring process is twofold. First and foremost, HR is tasked with establishing monitoring policy throughout any given organization. In regards to the employer, the importance of a firmly-established, lucid monitoring policy can’t be understated. Employers are granted great latitude under Federal and most state law to monitor employees, but ONLY if there are firmly established policies in place regarding what will be monitored, how it will be monitored and under what circumstances. Whether the policy in question regards the usage of employee monitoring software, employee computer monitoring, phone monitoring, or the employer’s power to monitor employee internet usage, it’s up to HR to write appropriate, clearly-articulated policy. Employees needn’t express agreement to the policies or to changes to the policies, but, by signing forms that acknowledge they’re aware of and understand said policies, consent is implied by the fact they remain with the company. HR’s second role regarding employee monitoring is to be certain monitoring procedures are being correctly implemented and followed to the letter of the law. HR’s role in the monitoring process, then, is to serve as watchdog in the interest of both company and employee.

What can be Monitored?

1) Phones: Businesses have the right to record business-related phone conversations on company-owned phones – be they landlines or cellphones. Many states add a requirement that the employee must somehow be made aware during any recorded conversation that a third party is eavesdropping. Most states, however, prohibit businesses from recording or even listening in on personal phone calls, with employers required to hang up the moment they realize a personal phone call is in progress. Some states add an exception to the personal-phone-call rule that allows monitoring of personal phone calls if the employee in question has been warned.

2) Computers: Employee computer monitoring is probably the most prevalent type of monitoring in the modern workspace. Businesses routinely monitor employee internet usage to varying degrees from company to company and from employee to employee. Although policy varies from industry to industry, as a general rule, employees who engage in limited amounts of personal-internet usage on the job don’t have a great deal to worry about from their employers, provided they get their work completed in a timely and competent fashion. However, if you’re spending hours of your workday surfing the web, shopping, sending personal emails or – worst of all – looking at pornography, your days with your current employer are probably numbered. Chances are, your company has employee monitoring software in place that’s logging every keystroke and every website visited.

3) Email: Although email usage and monitoring falls under the “computer monitoring” category, the employer is, generally speaking, granted so much latitude to monitor employee email, I think it deserves a separate entry. Simply put, in most states, if you compose an email from a company-owned email account – regardless of who owns the computer equipment – you have almost zero expectation of privacy. The law is so heavily weighted in the employer’s favor, in fact, that judges have ruled even attorney-client privilege is trumped by an employer’s right to monitor company-owned email accounts. And don’t think your personal email account is wholly safe from company monitoring, either – not if you access it from company-owned equipment. Of course, the employer must have a clearly-stated policy in place to conduct email monitoring; otherwise, the business could find itself on shaky legal ground.

Final Thoughts

Employees aren’t without rights in this era of ever-increasing workplace monitoring. Although companies with a clear policy in place are legally allowed to monitor employees, monitoring must be free of personal motivation or bias on the part of management. That’s where HR comes into play, acting as watchdog over management to be sure personal vendettas aren’t being settled or power plays being made under the guise of routine monitoring. Companies should also be aware of the type of work environment they could create through the overuse of monitoring. In an industry like the media, for example – where social networking and the internet have become ubiquitous – excessive employee monitoring would likely be extremely counterproductive. Employers should take into account the type of work environment they will create through their usage of monitoring. Employees can quickly become resentful of a perceived corporate “Big Brother.” In some industries – in financial services, for instance – such micromanagement might be conducive to a successful, efficiently-run business, but the employer should be extremely mindful regarding the type of employee monitoring policies and practices it puts in place.

Read more in our Employee Monitoring guide

By SoftActivity Team
Photo by Robbert van der Steeg (Flickr)

May 5th, 2014