Watching while you work

Theresa Montgomery

Employers use technology to monitor their workers

If you’re reading this article on your computer terminal at work, you might want to wait until you get home. Chances are, your boss knows when you’re surfing the Internet – and what sites you’re looking at.

A survey conducted by the American Management Association revealed 76 percent of employers monitor their employees’ Web site connections. Using GPS and employee identification SmartCards, 8 percent of the companies surveyed track employees’ cell phones and vehicles.

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Employers’ increasing use of emerging technologies to ensure workplace productivity is creating a question of privacy for many American workers.

“We have more technology now through which we can monitor employee behavior, and once something is possible, they’re taking advantage of that,” said Cathy DuBois, associate professor in the College of Business Administration and Graduate School of Management.

Fifty years ago, an organization didn’t monitor its employees nearly as much as it does now, she said. Employers tracked their workers as they signed in and out of the workplace, she said.

“As we’re shifting into more knowledge-driven work, what the employees are doing has more impact,” DuBois said. “They have more power, broader ways in which they can impact the organization. When they’re on the phone, their range of influence may be to turn away a customer.”

Monitoring itself is not bad, but its potential for misuse is problematic. In every organization, as in every personal relationship, it is essential that employers use information in only the ways they say they will, DuBois said.

“If you tell an employee it’s for one purpose, and you use it for something else, you have violated their trust,” she said. “Organizations should know better than to do that.”

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 defines the terms and conditions under which employers can use technology to monitor behavior in the workplace. In the majority of cases, however, if an employee sues the company for invasion of privacy, the courts decide in favor of the employer, according to the National Workrights Institute Web site.

“It seems the private sector is taking its cue from the government, which has given a very long leash for how employers can monitor their work force,” Ohio employment attorney David Worhatch said. “The result is that things occur which would have been considered unimaginable in the past.”

Technology is not the only factor in the misuse of personal information, he said.

“It’s not a violation of privacy rights for information to come to their attention,” he said. “That’s all well and good, as long as the employees who gain access to that information honor that content.”

Too many times, Worhatch said, an individual’s private information is discussed on not-so-secretive terms at meetings. Paperwork is left out on a desk. Files are accessible through computer terminals, which require security codes to access the information, but which are left open long enough for an unauthorized user to see.

“The more an employee exposes private information to the employer, the greater the risk somebody else will find out,” Worhatch said.

Showing a direct connection between an employer’s access to someone’s personal information, particularly where health-related issues are concerned, and the sudden drop in performance evaluation an employer uses as the pretext to fire that employee, is very difficult, he said.

“You know, the old adage that, ‘If you want to keep something secret, don’t tell it to anybody’ is very true in the employment setting,” Worhatch said.

Of course, technology can do the talking for you.

Contact features correspondent Theresa Montgomery at [email protected].