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Careful -- should you read this?

Monitoring employees: Eyes in the workplace
iconWhat does your employer have a right to know about what you're doing at your desk? Check to see who's watching what you're reading right now -- then click here to see if you agree with respondents to a study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management.

Monitoring employees:
Eyes in the workplace

In this story:

Over your shoulder

Vulnerabilities and violations

Squint at that screen

RELATED STORIES, SITES Downward pointing arrow

(CNN) -- A recent survey of employers indicates that a majority of them are watching employees' activity on the Internet at work. A near-omniscient eye -- and usually an electronic one -- may well be looking your way right now.

Where are you as you read this? On whose equipment?

The study of human-resources professionals at 722 companies, found 74 percent saying they monitor workers' Internet use at work; 72 percent said they check on employees' e-mail; 51 percent said they review phone calls. The workplace privacy survey was conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), with West Group.

graphic Does your company monitor what you're doing on the Net while at work?

Yes, I either know it for a fact, or feel sure of it.
I can't tell yet. Sometimes I think yes. Sometimes no.
No. I'm free to surf at will. I'm sure of it. Maybe. I guess.
View Results


But the modern workplace isn't an Orwellian bastion of Big Brother, says Angela Georgallis, a SHRM spokeswoman. "What they're concerned with," she says of the watchful employers, "is that the workplace is a productive and safe environment."

Lewis Maltby, president of National Workrights Institute, a nonprofit group in Princeton, New Jersey, agrees -- but he says he wishes employers would monitor electronic communications more wisely.

"They're not hostile to privacy, but they're indifferent to privacy," Maltby says. "Indifference is all we need for privacy to disappear."


Over your shoulder

Forty percent of the HR professionals polled said their organizations most often monitor e-mail for cause. But 32 percent said they do so at random. For monitoring Internet use, the respective ratios were 41 percent and 33 percent. For phone calls -- 30 percent for cause, 21 percent at random.

graphic You may be under company surveillance right now. The Society for Human Resource Management did some checking up of its own and asked just what companies test for and collect data on. Drugs? Credit checks? Phone calls you're making at work? See what's up.

The most common reason survey respondents gave for their organizations' monitoring of employees' use of the Internet, e-mail and phone calls was to evaluate performance -- with quality control reasons being cited second.

"Your computer is not a PC but a BC -- a business computer," Georgallis says. As such, she reasons, employers have a right to review how it's being used by you.

A survey commissioned in April by Elron Software of Burlington, Massachusetts, found that one in three corporate workers said they spent 25 minutes or longer each day at work using the Internet for personal business -- shopping, for example.

And nearly one in five of the 576 employees questioned said they'd received at least one potentially offensive e-mail per month from a co-worker.

"I think employers put in monitoring systems because they're responding to business concerns. But they don't give two thoughts to privacy when they do it."
— Lewis Maltby, National Workrights Institute

That's another reason -- liability in addition to productivity -- that employers resort to monitoring workers' electronic communications, Georgallis says.


Vulnerabilities and violations

Surveillance of employee Internet use is especially troubling to Maltby. "People go to the Web," he says, "with intensely personal problems they would probably never discuss over the telephone or by e-mail because they're so extremely sensitive -- you can go to the Web anonymously."

Unless your employer is checking on you.

If she or he is looking, Web sites you visit may suggest to management that you're a battered wife or HIV positive or half of a disintegrating marriage.

graphic The Society for Human Resource Management -- which sure asks a lot of questions, don't you think? -- also wanted to know what people think employers have a right to know about workers' activities at their desks. Log out of that family genealogy site you're working on and have a look at what people said are boss' rights.

"Employers who monitor Web traffic in the traditional manner create a picture window on their employees' private lives," Maltby says.

It's possible, however, he says, for employers to enforce their electronic communications policies without intruding into their workers' lives. If, for example, a company wants a prohibition against its staff visiting sex sites -- but will permit their surfing travel, financial and sports sites for a maximum of 15 minutes during breaks -- that company can use software to limit workers' activities to just those sites and time frame.

Similarly, technology exists that enables an employer to determine whether a worker is sending and receiving e-mail from other than professional contacts without actually reading the e-mails, he says.

The modern workplace isn't an Orwellian bastion of Big Brother, says Angela Georgallis, a Society of Human Resource Management spokeswoman. "What they're concerned with," she says of watchful employers, "is that the workplace is a productive and safe environment."

"I think employers put in monitoring systems because they're responding to business concerns," Maltby says. "But they don't give two thoughts to privacy when they do it."


Squint at that screen

Seventy-two percent of the respondents to the SHRM/West Group survey said their organizations have a formal written policy on monitoring Internet use. And 70 percent said the same is true regarding the monitoring of e-mail.

graphic Tell us whether you think that corporate efforts to monitor their employee's online movements are about snooping or just good measures related to security on the Net.

At these companies, an argument can be made that employees have no expectation of privacy.

"The fact that you tell a person about it in advance doesn't make it right," Maltby says. A company wouldn't have a sign at its employee entrance stating that they'll be strip-searched each day, he says by way of analogy.

Legislation has been introduced in Congress to require employers to notify workers of any monitoring of Internet, e-mail and telephone use, as well as general tracking of computer keystrokes. Under this legislation, companies would also have to disclose the frequency of their monitoring activities.

Many companies are recognizing that changing times mean a need for flexibility in the workplace, Maltby says. "If there ever was an air-tight wall between home and work, it came down years ago," he says.

"Very few companies today have a rule against all personal use of electronic communication," Maltby says.

"Employers are becoming more realistic about people's need to send an occasional personal message from work. But while they may not fire people for sending personal e-mail messages, they keep reading them. What's sad about it is that it's not necessary."



Survey: Employers OK with e-surfing
December 20, 2000
Analysis: Your PC could be watching you
November 15, 2000
Employer e-snooping measure nears vote
September 13, 2000
E-mail probe triggers firings
July 11, 2000
Should overworked employees be allowed to surf the Web on the job?
May 11, 2000

American Civil Liberties Union
American Management Association
Society for Human Resource Management

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