Employee Privacy in the Workplace: What to Consider

U.S. employers have the right to monitor employees on company devices, sparking employee privacy concerns. Here's how you can navigate this tricky space.
September 11, 2017

Rapidly evolving technology has given employers the ability to remotely track employee productivity. On the surface, this seems like a boon for businesses. But monitoring worker progress via emails and tracking apps brings up issues of employee privacy.

The European Court of Human Rights recently overturned a ruling that had given employers in Europe unrestricted access to employee emails and other workplace communications.

The decision has prompted debate about American workplace privacy laws that currently grant U.S. employers the ability to monitor all communication performed on company property, including emails and phone calls.

“Technology has greatly increased the ability to monitor employees, as well as brought awareness to legal and ethical considerations that surround employee privacy," says Carisa Miklusak, CEO of tilr, which matches qualified workers with employers.

This new hyper-connected reality has also raised new questions about the divide between the personal and professional lives of employees, believes Miklusak.

“For example," she asks, "is it appropriate to monitor someone's personal Facebook page when making a hiring decision? And is it acceptable to double check your employee's stated check-in time at the beginning of a workday with GPS monitoring?"

Legal Versus Ethical

The rights of employees when it comes to workplace privacy aren't a cut-and-dry issue.

It may be legal to track certain activities, but is it always a good idea? How does an employer strike a balance between employee productivity and employee privacy?

It's up to your company policy to clearly state how and what you'll monitor.

—Carissa Miklusak, CEO, tilr

As Miklusak sees it, there are two issues at play when it comes to employee monitoring—what is legal and what is ethical.

“The issue of employee privacy trickles into every aspect of business and is something that is becoming more important to consider," she says. “For company leaders in today's technological landscape, finding the right balance regarding monitoring employees is an art, not a science. It takes balancing what is legal or allowed with what is ethical, based on the values governing your specific organization."

To decide what is right for your company, Miklusak suggests answering these two questions:

1. Will employee monitoring produce data that can be used to drive needed results?

“Avoid monitoring just to monitor," suggests Miklusak. You may want to ask yourself what your objectives are for monitoring. For instance, do you seek specific metrics that will help you determine if work processes at your company are expedient?

2. Will your company culture support this type of monitoring?

“Monitoring should drive positive, not negative results," says Miklusak. “Cultural acceptance and adoption is a core consideration. It's of no use to monitor if the very nature of that monitoring drives down productivity. Ensuring that your team or company understands the reasons for monitoring and the potential positive outcomes are core to its success."

Employee Privacy and Transparency

Often, employee dissatisfaction regarding perceived privacy violations comes when they feel blindsided about being monitored. Employers who aren't transparent about monitoring may experience employee backlash.

“Almost everything that upsets us in life can be boiled down to created or perceived expectation, and that expectation not being met," says Phil Shawe, CEO and co-founder of TransPerfect, which provides language services and technology solutions to global businesses.

“For employers, managing expectations is key," continues Shawe. “If employees believe they have an expectation of privacy, but don't get that privacy and are instead monitored, these mismatched expectations can lead to problems, and that's bad for business."

In order to create expectations that jive with reality in the workplace, Shawe recommends being clear and communicative about company policies when it comes to employee privacy and electronic devices.

Keeping It Personal

In addition to clearly stating how and when employees will be monitored in the employee handbook, Shawe recommends a separate notice regarding the policy that should be read and signed by all employees. Doing so can help ensure everyone is on the same page in regards to employee privacy.

“Make it clear that employees shouldn't have expectations of privacy for anything they do on a company-owned network, computer or device," says Shawe. “If employees wish to keep communication private, they should use personal devices for their personal communication."

The use of personal devices rather than company ones can be an important distinction.

“TransPerfect has a division that performs eDiscovery and forensic investigations," explains Shawe. “Any data resting on company devices, including fragments from using web-based email systems, such as Gmail, may be accessible."

Full disclosure and cautionary advice is advisable, agrees Miklusak.

“As technological monitoring is a growing trend, laws and regulations are also evolving," she says. "It's up to your company policy to clearly state how and what you'll monitor."

Read more articles on hiring & HR.

Photo: Getty Images