Who’s watching the workers?

Employers have a right to monitor remote employee productivity, but that doesn’t mean workers like it — or won’t try to hide their activity.
Feature Employee Monitoring Panel

With millions of Americans continuing to work remotely, a new study reveals many are starting to fear “Big Brother” is watching. New research by Elements Global Services, an HR technology and services company, found three out of four remote workers are concerned about their employer monitoring when and how much they work. Among the highlights of the study:

  • 76% of those using computers fear their boss monitors their communication;
  • More than half (53%) admit to deleting slacks or other messages so their employer couldn’t see them; and
  • 64% have gone so far as to delete their browsing history to hide lack of productivity.

Employers may be tempted to say, “If my employees aren’t doing anything wrong, they shouldn’t be worried if we monitor their activity,” but whether or not employees are using company devices for personal use isn’t really the issue. Trust is.

Some job functions require a higher level of security, and employees likely already know that and act accordingly. But many others do not, and monitoring employee activity on the clock — and possibly penalizing employees for shopping on Amazon, watching funny animal clips on YouTube, or playing fantasy sports — could create fear or animosity among employees.

While most employees don’t want to be monitored and clearly will go to great lengths to avoid monitoring efforts, there isn’t a lot of legal wiggle room when it comes to what employers can’t monitor.

According to Madison law firm Pines Bach, employers can legally monitor almost anything an employee does at work as long as the reason for monitoring is important enough to the business. Employers may install video cameras, read postal mail and email, monitor phone and computer usage, use GPS tracking, and more.

The reason for a particular type of workplace surveillance must be more important than an employee’s expectation of privacy to be legally permissible. For example, an employer most likely would not have a good enough reason to monitor a locker room but would be allowed to monitor conversations between customers and customer service employees.

“Wisconsin law protects prohibits unreasonable invasions of privacy, which generally means the intrusion upon the privacy of another of ‘a nature highly offensive to a reasonable person, in a place that a reasonable person would consider private or in a manner which is actionable for trespass,’” writes attorney Katherine Charlton of Hawks Quindel. “In addition to the state law protections of privacy, there are a variety of federal statutes which may apply, including the protections of the National Labor Relations Act, and the privacy statutes that frequently are included in various federal statutes, including those which protect against an employer monitoring an employee’s off-the-job political and/or religious activities.”

In the realm of trust though, it’s not just employers that don’t trust their employees. Employee trust in the HR department is mixed.

After conducting a Google search analysis of HR-related questions that people are frequently researching, Elements Global Services followed up on certain themes in a survey of 1,000 full-time workers. The first dynamic explored was the relationship between employees and their HR managers or departments.

The good news: 83% of workers say they trust their HR manager or department. However, a few industries have not established such trust consistently. Around 50% of people working in media and 69% working in hospitality say they don’t trust HR. Additionally, entry-level women are the least likely to say they trust HR to protect their interests (68%), versus everyone else (79%). On the other hand, entry-level men (83%) have a nearly equal expectation that their interests will be protected, as do senior-level women (84%).

While a majority of people say they trust HR, that doesn’t mean they find HR effective, or that they don’t harbor other concerns when they consider making formal complaints. Two-thirds of workers say they’ve neglected to report something to HR because they didn’t think HR would fix the issue. The most frequently cited problems were having too much work, a personality clash, and bullying.

A reluctance to make reports is not just about the specific nature of the issue, or the employee assuming that HR won’t act. There’s also a fear of retaliation to contend with — 49% of workers who have neglected to report something cited this fear. Given that personality clashes, bullying, and sexual harassment are oft-cited issues, it’s no surprise this fear of retaliation is a high bar to cross.

Are workers hiding from their bosses?

One of the main themes to emerge from Elements Global’s Google search analysis is that employees are very concerned about being monitored or surveilled during their work. This applies to both on-site workers and remote workers. No matter where you work, there are countless ways an employer can track what you’re doing and how often you’re doing it.

Of the workers surveyed, 74% of those who work remotely are concerned about their employer monitoring when and how much they work, and 76% of workers who use a computer are concerned about their employer monitoring their communications.

The survey shows it’s a common experience to feel the need to hide things from your boss. Two in three workers are concerned about their location being disclosed by their laptop or phone. Plus, 64% have deleted their browsing history at some point and 53% have deleted a Slack or similar instant message so it can’t be seen by a boss. People working in finance, accounting, and  — perhaps surprisingly — HR are the most likely to say they’ve hidden things from their bosses.

Of the remote workers surveyed, 60% said their employer would be upset with them if they tracked when and how much they work. When on-site workers were asked that same question, only 31% reported their employer would be upset. Additionally, men (58%) were more likely than women (44%) to say their employer would be disturbed by how little they’re working.

Two-thirds of all workers we surveyed (67%) admitted that software to track their productivity would likely make them more productive.

The looming threat of employee monitoring software

If you’re a typical knowledge worker — dependent on email and instant messaging software to do much of your work — at some point you may have found yourself regretting something you just typed. The question is, will your boss see it?

As mentioned, three in four workers who use a computer (76%) are concerned about their communications being monitored. In describing the communications they regret, 44% say they’ve talked about something inappropriate for the workplace, 35% say they were gossiping or being negative, and 21% say their communications were simply off-topic from work and could be viewed as wasting time.

Those working in insurance (89%), HR (85%), and accounting (83%) were most likely to say they’re concerned about being monitored, and 59% of all workers say their employer would be upset with them if they knew everything they’ve ever said or written while at work.

In an effort to establish a trust baseline and better inform employees of expectations, the attorneys at Murphy Desmond S.C. offer the following tips for employers engaging in or thinking about engaging in employee monitoring to avoid trampling on employees’ rights:

  • Monitor only for legitimate reasons. An employer will waste less time and money if it monitors only for sound business-related reasons such as: an unauthorized use of equipment, quality control, security, and productivity tracking.
  • Adopt a written policy. Employers should adopt a written policy informing its employees that they will be monitored and under what circumstances the surveillance will be performed. The policy should clearly state that employees should have no expectation of privacy and the employer has an absolute right to access employee’s communications. The employee should sign a written statement acknowledging their understanding of the policy.
  • Train employees about policy. Employees should be fully knowledgeable about the rationale and procedures of the policy. In addition, managers should be trained concerning the proper procedures for employee rights when investigating alleged policy violations.
  • Enforce the policy uniformly. Uniform enforcement of policies maintains management credibility, avoids discrimination and harassment claims, protects trade secrets, and prevents copyright violations.

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