Monitoring staff is an uncomfortable issue. There is something distinctly old-style KGB about intercepting people’s messages and listening in to their phone calls. On the other hand, employers know that there are good reasons for maintaining a degree of access and control.
Some of these are clear cut. The downloading and circulating of pornography from the Internet, for example, has become a serious problem for employers. Not only is it illegal to publish or disseminate obscene material, it also leaves the company open to harassment allegations from staff who inadvertently see or receive material that offends them. Without the power to monitor what staff are looking at puts themselves and staff at risk.
Employers also need to monitor staff e-mails or phone calls for reasons to do with staff performance or customer care. They may need to know whether employees are dealing with calls from the public effectively. Monitoring calls is sometimes the only way to find out.
When introducing the rules on monitoring communications last week, e-commerce minister Patricia Hewitt said they need to “strike a balance between protecting the privacy of individuals and enabling industry and business to get the maximum benefit from new communications technology”.
This too is what employers want. The difficulty is deciding where to draw the line. When does monitoring become snooping? At what point does a business need become an invasion of privacy?
As is usually the way, the legal questions will be clarified by case law. There is no real guidance available at the moment although the Data Protection Commissioner is this week publishing draft guidance on monitoring that will consider all the different legislation on the subject. Unfortunately, this won’t be available in its final form until March 2001.
However, the decision on how much to monitor an employee’s communication is not only a legal decision but a management one too. Yes, companies must act to stay on the right side of the law, but they must also remember to balance this with the need to maintain the trust and good will of employees.