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Electronic surveillance in the workplace

As a result of the increasing popularity and pervasiveness
of the internet, employees now use it for purposes not related to work while at
the workplace. And this fact pushed employers to the point where surveillance
and employee monitoring was their option to keep track of workers’ online
behavior, but such action generated many concerns and ethical arguments.

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Surveillance can be implemented in many forms including
microphones, infrared sensors, accelerometers and Bluetooth to measure
employees’ movements, face-to-face encounters, speech patterns, vocal
intonations, physical posture and details of conversations. For instance, some
nurses and patient care technicians now have movement sensors attached to their
badges to know where do they go during their shift and how long did it take
them to get back to the office. Another example would be the program
implemented by JP Morgan to monitor employees and their trading activities, the
system designed to control possible unethical or illegal practices by traders.1

According to a survey cited by the American Management
Association back in 2007, 45% of employers are tracking content, keystrokes,
and time spent at the keyboard, 43% store and review computer files, 12%
monitor the blogosphere to see what is being written about the company and 10%
monitor even their employees’ social networking sites. The survey revealed that
more than 1/4 of employers have fired workers for misusing e-mail and nearly
1/3 have fired employees for misusing the Internet at the workplace.2

Bahaudin Mujtaba in the Journal of Applied Management and
Entrepreneurship concluded that “About 80% of employees in industries such
as banking, insurance, telecommunications, travel, and other related service
industries might be subject to some level of telephone or computer-based
monitoring,”3
and that means we are all -to a certain point- being monitored and under sort
of surveillance while at the workplace.

All of this data, together with the info available from several studies
and researches on the matter have led to path full of controversy. Issues on
whether surveillance at the workplace is ethical have risen. Some are concerned
about their privacy being harassed but others insist that these actions have
been implemented solely to prevent frauds and push the productivity of
employees forward.

The case for employee monitoring

Generally speaking, employees believe that a
computer-based monitoring can provide an unbiased objective method of
performance evaluation, which prevents managers from reviewing employees subjectively
involving their personal opinions or feelings. Richard Worsnop in his book `Privacy
in the Workplace’ mentioned “Electronic monitoring offers a distinct
advantage to the employee: it is objective”4. In other words, evaluation
resulted from electronic surveillance is more accurate, and it is implemented
for the advantage of employees not against them, it offers a uniform feedback
based on both quality and quantity of workers’ output.

Employers on the other hand, use electronic surveillance as
a method to increase productivity and ensure an appropriate level of efficiency
during working hours. Several studies have shown that monitoring offers an
effective way to decrease the down time taken by employees and prevent long
extended breaks4. Perhaps most
importantly that it prevents Cyberloafing or in other words using working hours
to surf the internet for personal matters or do personal communications.

Nielsen Media Research revealed from a study that every month employees of big
companies such IBM and Apple, log onto the website of the pornographic magazine
Penthouse thousands of times5.

Security and theft prevention are other issues that concern
business owners. Surveillance can help with protecting sensitive information from
being leaked and early mitigation of risky behaviors. Not to forget insider
threats that can be detected before damaging the company. Employers -through
monitoring- can also eliminate their legitimate concerns about email misusing
and proprietary information thefts, which accounts for nearly $2 billions in losses
every year, according to the “International Handbook of White-Collar and
Corporate Crime”6.

The atmosphere in the workplace is one of the things
employers are legally liable for. Thus, the ability to keep track on the
records of emails and websites visits is essential to defend against lawsuits7. A perfect example -employers
would like to avoid- would be the $70 million lawsuit brought by Morgan Stanley
employees, who claimed that the company’s internal email system had been used
to pass racist jokes which created a hostile work environment8. And to avoid such cases
employers need to electronically monitor their employees, “We can’t make
corporations responsible for stopping unacceptable forms of behavior and then
deny them the tools needed to keep an eye out for that behavior.” Joseph Garber,
a columnist for Forbes magazine, explains8

The case against employee monitoring

On the contrary, electronic surveillance may
send negative messages to the workforce. In many cultures, it may raise privacy
concerns, injure trust, increase the stress level and raise questions of
fairness.

Many employees have privacy concerns regarding monitoring
and what kind of information being collected throughout the process, especially
when the employer invades their social network activities and emails. Furthermore,
excessive monitoring and tracking employees’ online activities have direct
impact on reducing innovation and productivity, says Karen Levy, a postdoctoral
fellow at New York University’s Information Law institute9. Employers usually justify
such actions by claiming that by owning the computer they have the utmost right
to access emails produced by it. Bahaudin Mujtaba of Nova Southeastern
University in the Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship argues
“While employers use monitoring devices to keep track of their employees’
actions and productivity, their employees feel that too much monitoring is an
invasion of their privacy.”9 and
some employers practice monitoring without explicitly notifying their
employees.

Trust is often a major issue in monitored-environments. A
lot of employees would perceive it as their employer doesn’t trust them, and as
a result, this can definitely be an obstacle and a step backwards in the
relationship between both of them. In the `Journal of Business Ethics’, Rita
Manning highlights the dark side of surveillance “When we look at the
workplaces in which surveillance is common, we see communities in trouble. What
is missing in these communities is trust.”9

Employees being monitored constantly, especially for
evaluation purposes, generates a high level of stress and a lot of pressure.

The higher stress levels they get, the more dissatisfied about the job they
become and this leads to decreased morale and lack of motivation. Some other
issues include “bathroom break harassment” occurs when the employee doesn’t
take enough breaks to go to the bathroom out of fear of contract termination,
which results into high levels of stress while at the workplace. A real-life
example would be, United Airlines, when a supervisor threatened an employee
with firing her and terminate her contract after she went over her permitted
bathroom time. Flight reservationists are usually allotted with a total of 12
minutes bathroom breaks during a 7.5 hours shift10.

Monitoring at the workplace may raise questions of
fairness, giving that such systems target only line employees and not
high-level executives or managers11 which makes it completely
unethical to implement. Women are more likely to be targeted and monitored especially
if they occupy a low-position job, according to an article in Public Personnel
Management, “The majority of employees being electronically monitored are
women in low-paying clerical positions.”12. Another issue related to
fairness could be whether the information collected is work related or whether
the standards are viewed as reasonable. The National Association of Working
Women summed it all up by saying, “the work lives of monitored employees
can be characterized by three words: invasion, stress, and fear”13.

Bottom line

          From my
point of view, electronic surveillance is only ethical when: 1. The employer has set a
written and transparent policy that employees can review and agree on. 2. You make sure to
implement and apply monitoring on all employees regarding their (age, gender or
position). 3. Ensuring
that all data collected are work-related and none of it could be considered breach
of privacy right. 4.

You engage employees in the monitoring process so they become familiar with it
and able to identify their weak and strong points.

But it is totally not ethical if: 1. The employer tracks personal data and
activities of employees without a pervious notice. 2. Monitoring is only applied on some employees
not on all workforce. 3.

Monitoring implemented without informing the employees explicitly. 4.  Surveillance crossed the limit of
productivity evaluation e.g. (bathroom break harassment).

1 Williams, R. (Sep.

30, 2015). Psychology Today. Retrieved 25 November,
2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201509/your-boss-is-watching-you-the-employee-monitoring-explosion

 

2 Amanet,org. (NA). American
Management Association. Retrieved 26 November, 2017, from http://www.amanet.org/training/articles/the-latest-on-workplace-monitoring-and-surveillance.aspx

 

3 Williams, R. (Sep.

30, 2015). Psychology Today. Retrieved 25 November,
2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201509/your-boss-is-watching-you-the-employee-monitoring-explosion

4 Crampton, M. ;
Nishra, S. (NA). Olemiss.edu. Retrieved 24 November,
2017, from http://faculty.bus.olemiss.edu/breithel/final%20backup%20of%20bus620%20summer%202000%20from%20mba%20server/frankie_gulledge/employee_workplace_monitoring/employee_monitoring_privacy_in_the_workplace.htm

 

 

5 Schulman,
M. (Nov 20, 2000). Santa Clara University. Retrieved 26
November, 2017, from https://www.scu.edu/ethics/focus-areas/business-ethics/resources/littlebrother-is-watching-you/

 

6 Williams, R. (Sep.

30, 2015). Psychology Today. Retrieved 25 November,
2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201509/your-boss-is-watching-you-the-employee-monitoring-explosion

 

7 Heathfield,
S. (October 04, 2017). The Balance. Retrieved 25
November, 2017, from https://www.thebalance.com/electronic-surveillance-of-employees-1919262

8 Schulman,
M. (Nov 20, 2000). Santa Clara University. Retrieved 26
November, 2017, from https://www.scu.edu/ethics/focus-areas/business-ethics/resources/littlebrother-is-watching-you/

 

 

9 Williams, R. (Sep.

30, 2015). Psychology Today. Retrieved 25 November,
2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201509/your-boss-is-watching-you-the-employee-monitoring-explosion

 

 

 

 

 

10 Crampton, M. ;
Nishra, S. (NA). Olemiss.edu. Retrieved 24 November,
2017, from http://faculty.bus.olemiss.edu/breithel/final%20backup%20of%20bus620%20summer%202000%20from%20mba%20server/frankie_gulledge/employee_workplace_monitoring/employee_monitoring_privacy_in_the_workplace.htm

11 Williams, R. (Sep.

30, 2015). Psychology Today. Retrieved 25 November,
2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201509/your-boss-is-watching-you-the-employee-monitoring-explosion

 

12 Schulman, M. (Nov 20, 2000). Santa
Clara University. Retrieved 26 November, 2017, from https://www.scu.edu/ethics/focus-areas/business-ethics/resources/littlebrother-is-watching-you/  

 

13 Crampton, M. ;
Nishra, S. (NA). Olemiss.edu. Retrieved 24 November,
2017, from http://faculty.bus.olemiss.edu/breithel/final%20backup%20of%20bus620%20summer%202000%20from%20mba%20server/frankie_gulledge/employee_workplace_monitoring/employee_monitoring_privacy_in_the_workplace.htm

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