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Electronic Monitoring in the Workplace

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  • Category: Workplace

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Electronic monitoring in the workplace is becoming more commonplace.  There are both advantaged and disadvantages to this practice.  There are various reasons that employers choose to monitor employees, and issues arise on both sides of the fence for the justification of the practice.

            According to a survey done by the American Management Association, forty-five percent of large and mid-sized companies in the year of 1999, record and review their employees’ communications and activities on the job, including phone calls, e-mail and computer files.”  (Morgan, 1999)  This is a very high percentage of employers in the United States.  Why are they doing so?  There are several reasons:

  1. Maintaining the company’s professional reputation and image;
  2. Maintaining employee productivity;
  3. Preventing and discouraging sexual or other illegal workplace harassment;
  4. Preventing “cyberstalking” by employees;
  5. Preventing possible defamation liability;
  6. Preventing employee disclosure of trade secrets and other confidential information; and
  7. Avoiding copyright and other intellectual property infringement from employees illegally downloading software.

            The employer will state that monitoring employees will improve customer satisfaction, increase employee productivity, and make the employees perform better.  There are, of course, pros and cons to this theory.  Many employees feel that they are having their privacy violated by being monitored so closely. 

            Electronic mail almost  as common as the telephone as a workplace communication tool. But, unfortunately, employees’ personal use of the e-mail has resulted in lost work time and occasional improper use of the e-mail system (Shostak and Wong, 1999).” 

This of course, leads to employers feeling that they are quite justified by monitoring all activities on an employee computer.  Not only can email be monitored, but even the number of mistakes a person makes in typing a letter can be checked.  Of course, it also includes the ability to see any e-mails an employee may receive.  (Kidwell and Kidwell, 1996).   According to a one study, over 130 million workers are currently mailing recipients  2.8 billion e-mail messages each day (Hawkins, 1999).

            Of course, employees will argue that it is unfair of an employer to check their e-mail.  Yet, the law is not on their side.  The law does provide for protection of electronic mail, yet this doesn’t prevent an employer, as the server of the service, from being allowed to read any and all mail from its servers.  The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986 is the only law that deals with e-mail.  (Pivec and Brinkerhoff, 1999).  As stated, this law would protect a person from opening e-mail of a person on his or her own private computer, but does not protect an employee from having communications initiated on the job intercepted. 

            This has been tested in at least one case.  In a Pennsylvania case, an employee lost his case when he tried to claim invasion of privacy under the ECPA when fired for inappropriate use of e-mail while working.  The Federal Court upheld that the employee that had been terminated had no right to expect privacy (Lewis, 2000).  In another case, where the employer did allow personal e-mails, a case for termination was upheld due to the employee sending inappropriate e-mail. (Workplace Privacy, 2002)

            “Legislation currently before the Congress will, if adopted, prohibit companies from secretly monitoring their employees’ e-mail and Internet usage.  A bill before the House, known as the Notice of Electronic Monitoring Act, would not prohibit employee monitoring but would:

  1. Require notification to employees of the firm’s monitoring practices on an annual basis or whenever policies are changed,
  2. Require specific disclosure as to the frequency of monitoring, where the information is stored and how it will be used,
  3. Limit civil damages to $20,000. Essentially identical legislation is pending in the Senate.8 Similar legislation has been proposed in prior congressional sessions, and it seems likely that some legislation will be passed in the relatively near future”. (Asman, 2001)

            An employer can protect themselves from possible Fourth Amendment complaints by having their employees informed of the possibility that their e-mail communications will be monitored at the discretion of the employer.  Most employers will have a statement of notification on file, that has been signed by the employee.

An employee can’t claim invasion of privacy if they’ve been notified in advance.  As long as the employer can claim a reasonable suspicion or legitimate business needs (Barsook and Roemer, 1998). Of course, a legitimate business need can be something as simple as stating that it is to assure proper customer care. 

            While this might seem like an advantage on the part of the employer, it is considered by many employees as an intrusion all the same.  Many employees are likely to feel that they aren’t trusted by their employer.  When an employee feels he isn’t trusted, it can lead to the employee not being content with their position. Not only that, it can also lead to employ stress (George, 1966).  As an employee, knowing that your every move on the computer is being monitored can very often lead to employee dissatisfaction.  Work-related stress can also add to time lost from work due to illness. 

            Work-related stress can cause the following:

  1. Increased susceptibility to workplace accidents
  2. Deterioration of personal relationships
  3. Ill-health, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease
  4. Workplace aggression and violence. (APS, 2001)


            The advantages, however, are more on the side of the employer.  They are able to monitor their employees.  They know exactly what the employee is doing.  Another plus for the employer is their ability to have copies of any potential problems associated with e-mail, such as a customer, for example, stating that they were told one thing by X employee, where the e-mail clearly shows something entirely different.  In this aspect, this policy is both of benefit to the employee and the employer.

            Another advantage, which benefits both the employee and the employer is monitoring performance. (Hartman, 1998). An employer can see where an employee has been struggling with a particular portion of a job skill and offer assistance to improve performance.  This will benefit the employee as well, since they will be less frustrated when they are given assistance with something they do not understand.

            One thing that needs to be considered when monitoring employees are the costs. 

A company needs to consider in advance whether or not the costs are prohibitive for the size and scope of their business.  “An example of software that monitors only Internet usage is NetSpective by Telemate.Net Software, Inc. This program is installed on an organization’s proxy server or firewall and monitors all employee Internet activities, including e-mail, Web site visits and downloads. NetSpective can block access to nonproductive Web sites or to high band-width downloads (such as audio or video files).

The program can report on Internet e-mail traffic and band-width consumption by users, groups, or peak times. The software’s drill-down reporting capability permits network managers to monitor virtually any usage down to the user level. Prices for NetSpective start at $995 per proxy server for simple Internet usage reporting and can range upward to $15,000 per proxy server if a business wishes to implement all features of the system including active blocking of access to specific Web sites or other Internet activities.” (Asman, 2001)

The following table shows the diversity of monitoring in the workplace:

                                    Diversity of Monitoring Activities2

                                               Electronic Activity Monitored Percent of Reporting

                                               Firms Monitoring

                                               Monitor Internet connections 54.1%

                                    Telephone use (time spent, numbers called) 44.0%

                                    Store and review e-mail messages 38.1%

                                    Store and review computer files 30.8%

                                    Computer use (time logged on, keystroke counts, etc.) 19.4%

                                    Record and review telephone conversations 11.5%

                                    Store and review voice mail messages 6.8%  (Asman, 2001)

                                    (American Management Association Monitering Survey 2000)

            As the above list shows, monitoring Internet connections has topped the monitoring of telephone calls.  E-mail is almost as high.  It’s becoming increasingly clear that employers are doing a lot more monitoring than in the past.  In the past, most employers that did monitoring at all monitored things like bathroom breaks and phone usage.  Now, with the invent of the computer, there it has become much harder for employers to monitor employees without the use of some of the sophisticated programs as mentioned above.

            The determination must be made as to whether it is cost effective.  Certainly, it wouldn’t appear to be cost-effective for the small business owner to buy a $10,000 program to monitor a few employees.  Even some of the smallest companies, though, have networks where an IT Specialist is able to monitor all usage from the server.

Almost any company you call today has a message letting you know that phone calls are being recorded for improving customer service.  Some will even say ‘this call is being recorded to provide employee coaching’.  Programs can be set up to look for certain keywords that might signal a problem.  Other programs don’t check every e-mail, instead they check random e-mails.  These are a few ways to lower the costs of this program for a business.

            Regardless of the reasons for a company to have a policy regarding Internet usage and monitoring, it is very important that the company institutes a Communications Policy.  This policy should encompass the following issues: (Jones, 2001)

  1. Harassment
  2. Information Security
  3. Confidential Information
  4. Attorney/Client Privilege
  5. Copyright and trademark infringement
  6. Illegal employee activities
  7. Employees committing the company by their communications
  8. Computer viruses
  9. Export and regulatory compliance
  10. Risk of contamination

            Deciding who should have access to your company’s Internet, and e-mail resources isn’t easy. Companies want  to take advantage of this new, efficient means of communicating and gathering information yet are wary of the potential pitfalls of  Internet access.

Some employers, fearing  losses in productivity or greater risk of liability, may choose to limit Internet and e-mail access (Jones, 2001)  Of course, limiting access also makes it much more cost effective to implement  watchdog programs.   If only a few people are allowed on the Internet, it is obviously cheaper and safer than having every employee with access to the Internet and e-mail.


            So, the main disadvantages of monitoring are as follows:

  1. Cost: Many of the programs are very expensive.
  2. Time: Someone needs to check the data that is retrieved.
  3. Employee Distress: As stated earlier, feeling they are being watched can make an employee bitter.  For some, it can actually cause illness if they become severely stressed.  This, in turn, lowers ultimate productivity with time lost from work.

            The main advantages are as follows:

  1. Increased Productivity: The employee is less likely to be doing things that are not work related if they know they are being monitored.
  2. Employer Safety: This will protect the employer from false accusations from employees as well as from customers, with regard to any e-mail communication.
  3. Legal Issues: This has many topics as sub-categories.
    • Employer is legally allowed to monitor employees
    • Employee is protected should there be issues such as harassment, as the monitoring would benefit the employee in this instance.
    • Preventing employees’ from ‘cyberstalking’ anyone, either in the company or outside the company.
  4. Improved Customer Service: Less chances for employee’s not taking

      care of their customers.

  1. Much Easier to Provide Positive Feedback to Employees: If the

      employee is being monitored, it is easier to see potential learning

      difficulties, and to solve problems early.

            In essence, it appears that the reasons for monitoring employee Internet and e-mail access outweigh the cons.  There are a few very real issues with such a system, yet the benefits far outweigh them, especially if a company relies on a large amount of computer use to do its business.  There are even ways to set up systems to only allow employees on certain websites, if that is warranted with your business.

            In conclusion, it has become more common in the last decade to monitor employee usage of the Internet and e-mail because of the increased use of computers in general.  Much that we do in even the smallest business has computers that are used daily.  There has to be a clear plan in place, with the employees knowing the expectations as well as the rules regarding computer use.

            It is also advisable for a company to use as few rules as necessary, to lessen the risk of employee discontent with the plan you have in place.  The law does require that employees be notified of any monitoring, which is to the benefit of both the employee and the employer.  There is less chance of employee discord if the employer has stated clearly that any and all communications on the telephone, Internet and e-mail may be monitored at the discretion of the employer.

            In today’s society of computers doing everything, it’s antiquated thinking that would make a business disregard using the Internet due to potential problems.  The benefits of the Internet, use of e-mail, and other communication means far outweigh any problems associated with the process.


            Asman, M. (March 2001) Electronic Monitoring of Employees Ohio CPA Journal Accessed November 21, 2005

< http://www.ohioscpa.com/publications/journal/?article=506-7>

            Barsook, Bruce, and Terry Roemer. (Sep. 1998). Workplace e-mail raises privacy issues. American City & County [Online], Proquest. Accessed November 21, 2005: <http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?TS=9386147>

            Hartman, Laura P., and Gabriella Bucci. (Spring 1999). The Economic and Ethical Implications of New Technology on Privacy in the Workplace. Business and Society Review [Online], p1(1). Infotrac. Accessed November 21, 2005 <http://web1.infotrac.galegroup.com/itw/in.&dyn= 5!xrn _ 4_0_A53930165?>

            Hawkins, D. (March 22, 1999) Office Politics in the Electronic Age Workplace, U.S. News & World Report,

            Jones, T., (1997)  Managing Access To Your Company’s Electronic Communication Assets, American Corporate Council Association,  Accessed November 21, 2005:


            Kidwell, Ronald E., and Linda A. Kidwell. (Jan. 1996). Evaluating research on electronic surveillance: a guide for managers of information technology. Industrial Management &Data Systems, v96 n1 p8. Infotrac Accessed November 21, 2005

< http://web1.infotrac.galegroup. Com/ itw/.n=88!xrn_2_0_A18542096?>

            Lewis, T., Pittsburgh Business Times, (2000) Monitoring Employee E-Mail: Avoid stalking and Illegal Internet Conduct (visited July 21, 2001) Available: http://www.pittsburgh.bcentral.com/pittsburgh/stories/2000/05/22/focus6.html

            Pivec, Mary E., and Susan Brinkerhoff. (Winter 1999). E-mail in the workplace: Limitations on privacy. Human Rights [Online], v26 i1 p22-25. Proquest. Accessed November 21, 2005 <http://proquest.Umi.com/pqdweb?TS=9386144>

            Privacy Issues at Work. (July 1999). Sales & Marketing Management  [Online], v151 i7 p94. Infotrac. Accessed November 21, 2005 <http://web1.infotrac.galegroup.com/itw/in.dyn=13!xrn_4_0_A55 072851?>

            Work Place Privacy (2002) Employee Monitoring: Is There Privacy in the Workplace Privacy Rights Clearinghouse  Accessed November 21, 2005


            Work-related Stress (September 2001) The Australian Psychological Association  Accessed November 21, 2005:


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