Many large U.S. companies and organizations have some form of workplace surveillance system in place for monitoring security. But with advances in technology, workplace monitoring has come of age and is also available to small business owners, to closely observe employee behavior. While many employers may use workplace monitoring for what they believe to be legitimate purposes, such as checking employee productivity, performing business-related quality control, or tracking sources of leaks in confidential company information, companies need to formulate specific guidelines—and adhere to them—for the proper usage of security systems, in order to abide by existing laws that help protect employee privacy.
Privacy Laws and Violations
For some companies, an important reason to monitor the workplace is to focus on protecting the business from potential legal problems that could arise if an employee were to use a company computer for improper, or even illegal, activities online. Other business owners may have legitimate concerns about employee productivity after noticing a downward shift in the workflow. The challenge with Internet monitoring and other workplace surveillance tools is to not only protect your interests as an employer and business owner, but in so doing, to retain the trust of your employees by protecting their privacy.
Since camera security systems and Internet browsing restrictions are standards in workplace monitoring today, there are certain protocols employers should consider when setting up a surveillance system. For example, security cameras should never be installed in bathrooms or other areas in the building where employees may undress or change their clothes, and workplace surveillance content showing employees should never be distributed in public.
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), enacted in 1986, includes provisions for the access, use, disclosure, and interception of electronic, wire, and oral communications. It also provides privacy protections for such communications. For instance, the ECPA does not prohibit an employer from reading an employee’s electronic communications, including emails and instant messages. However, an employee may be protected under the ECPA if an employer were to monitor a private conversation being conducted on an employee’s own phone. On the other hand, the ECPA may not protect an employee from being monitored when using a company-owned phone or computer, particularly when accessing the Internet.
Since an employer owns the company’s computer network, he or she has the right to use certain monitoring techniques for business-related reasons, such as to check employee productivity levels. These techniques include the following:
- Keystroke monitoring, which reports the number of keystrokes per hour generated by each employee
- Computer-monitoring software, which allows an employer to see what is on an employee’s computer screen or stored on a computer’s hard drives
- Idle time tracking, which monitors computers for time spent away from the computer
It is important to note that some employees may be protected from workplace monitoring under certain circumstances. An employer’s right to monitor employees may be limited in certain states under specific statutes. Restrictions may also apply to employees with a union contract or who work in the public sector.
As a business owner, you want to ensure the security and safety of your company, property, and workforce. Your concerns may include guarding your company’s secrets, evaluating the performance of your employees, and protecting your business from a possible lawsuit due to illegal online activity conducted on company time. While there are effective surveillance tools and techniques that can help you operate your company more efficiently, there are protocols that need to be followed with respect to workplace monitoring, and privacy laws to be aware of that protect your employees. To keep track of inappropriate employee behavior that may occur within your company, remember to establish workplace surveillance guidelines before setting up a security system.