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Workplace privacy? Forget it!

Many Americans take their right to privacy for granted. But most don't realize that this right doesn't extend into the place where they spend most of their waking hours: their workplace.

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"There is very little, if any, privacy in the workplace, particularly in the private sector," says Jeremy Gruber, legal director of the National Workrights Institute, an advocacy group for human rights in the workplace. "Privacy is one of the most-violated principles in the American workplace. People are aware to a degree how much monitoring goes on in the workplace, but most individuals are unaware of how pervasive the lack of privacy is."

Monitoring employees electronically and in other ways is a growing part of the way American companies do business, according to the 2005 Electronic Monitoring and Surveillance Survey, conducted by the American Management Association and the ePolicy Institute. According to the survey, which was released in May 2005, 76 percent of employers monitor workers' Web connections, while 50 percent store and monitor employees' computer files.

Other types of monitoring at work can include:

  • keyboard keystroke monitoring
  • reviewing and storing employee e-mails and instant messages
  • monitoring time spent on the phone, numbers called and actual taping of conversations
  • video surveillance
  • drug testing
  • satellite technology to monitor use of company cars, cell phones and pagers

"There are three main reasons employers monitor employees: legal liability issues, employee productivity and security breaches," says Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute. "For example, e-mail creates a written business record, and employers are becoming increasingly aware that e-mail and Internet activity is the electronic equivalent of DNA evidence. If a company is sued or investigated by a regulatory agency, you can take it to the bank that e-mail will be investigated and subpoenaed."

Computer-related monitoring
Employers are most concerned about employee use of company computers. This includes e-mail, instant messaging, Web surfing and files stored on company computers. According to the Electronic Monitoring Survey, 26 percent of employers who participated in the survey have fired workers for workplace offenses related to the Internet, while 25 percent of employers have fired employees for misuse of e-mail. While many employers monitor employees' Web surfing, a slightly smaller number -- 65 percent of those surveyed -- actually use software to block workers' access to inappropriate Web sites.

Many employers are concerned about their employees' connecting to inappropriate Web sites, such as those with pornographic content or that allow employees to gamble online, Flynn says. Productivity suffers when employees spend too much time online surfing, attending to personal business or e-mailing friends. Employers also worry about workers' disclosing trade secrets or proprietary information over the Internet.

According to a 2004 ePolicy survey, instant messaging is one of the least-monitored computer activities -- only 6 percent of employers surveyed at that time retained or archived instant messages, while 58 percent of employees surveyed use instant messaging for personal online conversations. "Most instant messaging takes place via free software tools that employees download and thus is outside employer firewalls," says Flynn. "We tell employers that if your employees are doing this, you are handing information over to outsiders."

Keyboard keystroke monitoring can track key words typed on a keyboard and can also track how fast employees are typing. "There is a problem with worker monitoring when it leads to an oppressive work environment," says Jay Stanley, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union Technology and Liberty Project. "That can happen when employers can monitor things like keystrokes."

In such a situation, Stanley notes, employees can feel subtle or overt pressure to speed up the pace of their work, leading to morale problems.

Phone and video surveillance
Phone surveillance includes:

  • monitoring and taping employee phone conversations
  • blocking certain numbers such as 900 numbers
  • monitoring time spent on the phone
  • tracking numbers dialed
  • taping and reviewing voice mail
  • monitoring conversations between workers

According to the 2005 surveillance survey, 57 percent of employers surveyed block unauthorized phone numbers, and 51 percent monitor the amount of time spent on the phone and the numbers dialed. More than 80 percent of the employers who monitor these activities notify employees about what they are doing.

 
 
-- Posted: July 18, 2005
     

 

 

 

 

 

 

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