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The Eavesdropping Employer

May 3

Written by:
5/3/2018 12:37 PM  RssIcon


Corey Ciocchetti, JD

Associate Professor
Department of Business Ethics and Legal Studies

Your employer is watching you! Everyone sort of already knows this, right? But you may not know the extent or the reasons why. This short post introduces the topic and (hopefully) nudges you to learn more about your privacy at work. The bottom line is that monitoring is an important business tool to manage risk and ensure productive and safe workplaces. Employers should monitor their workplaces. Problems arise, however, when monitoring practices are excessive and lack transparency. Let’s dive in.

Employers monitor their people for many very good reasons:

  • To make sure the workplace is free of harassment – employees should not have free reign to bother or harass their unsuspecting colleagues
  • To make sure work gets done – employers provide compensation in exchange for hours
  • To make sure their equipment is used properly – they own it and so they can and should monitor it
  • To keep important information confidential – for example, trade secrets lose all value when exposed
  • To avoid lawsuits & investigations – think: harassment (sexual or otherwise), breach of duties, SEC investigations

There are other good reasons why your boss may monitor your behavior at work as well. In the end, employers face serious legal and business risks for unlawful and unethical employee behavior. Courts and shareholders rarely look kindly on excuses such as, “Well, I wanted to respect my employees’ privacy . . .  so, I neglected to notice that pornographic emails were circulated, or trade secrets revealed to a competitor.”

This all means that employers should to monitor their workplaces. It is generally legal, ethical in many cases, and a best practice. Problems occur when monitoring is excessive / completely hidden from employees. For example, technology provides the ability to literally monitor every minute of an employees’ workday. And, often employee behavior after work as well. Here’s how:

  • Tracking chips in employee ID cards go home with us
  • Email monitoring software on employee laptops goes home with us
  • GPS tracking on company vehicles often go home with us
  • Company provided cell phones go home with us
  • Video monitoring in the office and related company property like parking lots watch us on our way in and on our way home

Again, none of this technology is bad, per se. It’s all just very invasive when used to its maximum effect. The problems with overuse are many. Excessive monitoring is a morale killer. Employees want / need to feel trusted at work. They work better when they have the freedom to move about the office and be productive without feeling watched by the bosses. The Panopticon effect is real.

Employers overusing the technology also face invasion of privacy claims. Though harder to prove than most people think, courts will entertain these claims for excessive monitoring. The test is basically: did the employee have a reasonable expectation of privacy that was violated by the monitoring practice? Would a reasonable person in the employee’s shoes feel like is privacy was violated by what the employer did? These tests are easy to meet when it comes to cameras in bathroom stalls, strip searches at work, monitoring of personal phone calls, and random searches of locked offices, purses, and desks. Yes, these are all real cases!

The claims are harder to prove when the monitoring is invasive but not unreasonably so. However, there is still a likelihood of losing an invasion of privacy lawsuit for keeping tracking software on after hours or monitoring employees’ off-duty behavior. Some jurisdictions even ban these practices.

So, what are the best practices for employers interested in a safe and productive workplace but unwilling to open themselves up to lawsuits and awful morale? To me, the solution is simple. Monitor reasonably and disclose what you are doing and why, in understandable English, to your people. Businesses should have employee privacy policies that are short, concise, accurate, and understandable. They should go over the terms and practices with their people often.

The conversations may go like this:

  • “We want to keep our trade secrets safe and so we will monitor your phone calls from time to time to make sure our people are doing their best to keep this information safe.”
  • “We want our people to be free from a hostile and lewd workplace, so we will monitor your email for these types of unlawful messages.”
  • We want to keep the physical workplace safe from threats, so we will monitor the premises (including the parking lots) with cameras to make sure only people who are supposed to be here have access to our property.”


The idea is to tell your people what you are doing and why. Employers often balk at this because it gives away their advantage. And, that’s true. To an extent. If your employees know how you monitor, they can tailor their bad acts in different ways. But, privacy is always a tradeoff between ferreting out bad actors and making people’s work experience as pleasurable and productive as possible. We see this tradeoff every day at airports across America. I’ll leave it to you to determine if you think the TSA has found the proper balance.

In the end, I hope this post has convinced you that monitoring employees is not a bad thing. Like most things in life, it’s the excesses that get employers in trouble and make their people uncomfortable. There is a balance, however, and at that point lie the best monitoring practices. So, monitor your employees to keep the workplace safe, keep your important information confidential, and avoid lawsuits. But, please tell your people much about what you are doing and why. Keep it in plain English and transparent. And, perhaps most importantly, hire the right types of people so you have fewer potential bad actors to follow around.

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