HR & Employee Management Articles

Employee Tracking: The Legality and the Ethics of Workplace Monitoring

by John Unger
Published on 25 February 2016

A time clock to represent employee trackingTracking employee behavior, from timesheets to safety, has become a relatively common business practice.

The first and perhaps most common form of employee tracking has been in the area of time tracking. Rather than maintaining manual time clocks or installing expensive software, there are time clock providers who maintain web-based record keeping systems for their clients. These apps even integrate with payroll systems.

But what about other forms of tracking that have the potential to be more invasive to employees?

Tracking in the Workplace - the Legality

Businesses have three basic reasons for workplace tracking: to guard against unsafe behaviors; to ensure that there is no illegal activity taking place; and to monitor employee productivity. All three reasons appear justifiable, and the courts have generally agreed.

There are currently no real laws regarding employee tracking. In 2001, a bill that attempted to address the issue of "location privacy" failed to pass through Congress. The courts have also upheld employer rights in lawsuits that have been brought against them. In general, court responses have been as follows:

  • When an employee is on company property and using company equipment, there can be no expectation of privacy on the part of that employee. S/he is using equipment and hardware that belongs to someone else.

  • The company has a right to protect itself against liability in illegal activity. For example, an employee downloading offensive content and displaying or distributing it via company-owned hardware and servers, could open the company to a sexual harassment lawsuit.

  • The company has the right to protect its own investment by ensuring that employees are productive during their workday. Thus they can monitor employee online activities during hours for which that employee is being paid.

  • The company has the right to protect its industry secrets and therefore can monitor to prevent those secrets/information from being leaked.

  • The company can monitor behavior to ensure that safety procedures are followed. Unsafe practices can put others in danger and leave the company open to liability suits.

Is it ethical?

The ethical issue of employee tracking is where things get a bit murkier, and a lot more complex. Part of the reason for this is that an employee's personal and work life cannot always be separated. For example, people need to make personal phone calls while at work, or send personal emails during a break or at lunch hour.

Such information is highly personal, and if an employee wants to keep it confidential, there are ways to do so, such as meeting rooms without cameras, or designated private time within the work day. In most cases, employers and the software being used by a company do leave space for employee privacy.

There are middle grounds which most companies are adopting regarding electronic surveillance of computer use, especially when it comes to emails. Some companies do not collect emails per se, but monitor the size of an email being sent. One company, for example, became suspicious of the large size of an email, and discovered that an employee was sending trade secrets to a competitor.

Another solution has been for companies to block sites with certain key terms that would denote questionable content that is not work-related.

Best Practices

The most important factor for companies that institute electronic tracking of any kind is to ensure that all employees know and understand exactly what type of tracking is in place.

When an employer contracts a reputable and established tracking software provider such as VeriClock, the importance of informing employees of its implementation is always stressed.

Workplace policies should always be written down so that there are no misunderstandings and employees know exactly how they will be monitored.

A win-win situation

Companies take the need to keep all of their employees safe and accounted for very seriously. Not doing so can be harmful to other employees and leave the company open to liability. When employers act ethically and employees understand the "why" of tracking, it's a win-win situation.

John Unger is a writer and idea maker who is interested in business and success issues. You can find more of John's articles on his educational blog and get in touch via Twitter.


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