Where to draw the line

Employers must strike a balance between keeping an eye on poor performance and protecting the employees’ right to privacy if monitoring policies are to work.  Liz Hall reports

Employers are increasingly adding employee monitoring to their ammunition box in their bid to combat problems such as legal liability, reduced productivity, and the threat of the exposure of trade secrets and intellectual property. But are employers going too far in their attempts to stop employees misusing and abusing technology at work?

Employers can be held vicariously liable for their employees’ activities when using the internet and are responsible if staff send e-mail messages that breach confidentiality or are defamatory. In the case of Western Provident v Norwich Union, Norwich Union was forced to shell out £450,000 in damages and costs for slander and libel after Western Provident discovered damaging and untrue rumours circulating on Norwich Union’s internal e-mail system. They were about Western Provident being in financial difficulties, and being investigated by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

If an employee commits an act of harassment or discrimination via e-mail or by downloading and distributing inappropriate material, the employer is also vicariously liable – even if the act was unauthorised. Staff can sue employers for failing to provide a workplace free of harassment, which can extend to the electronic distribution of offensive material.

Nearly a quarter of organisations have had complaints about staff accessing internet chat rooms and 17 per cent have had complaints relating to games on the web, according to a survey by Personnel Today and law firm K-Legal in 2002.

Redressing problems caused by the misuse of technology is a costly business. The 2002 Annual Security Survey by the DTI revealed that some 44 per cent of businesses reported suffering an e-mail breach, with clear-up costs averaging £33,000.

Then there is the cost of lost productivity. One of the problems with employees browsing the internet is that it can become highly time-consuming and unfocused, even if done for genuine business reasons. Some 70 per cent of pornographic traffic occurs during regular business hours, according to Sex Tracker, a service that monitors pornography site usage.

Companies are becoming increasingly heavy-handed when dealing with internet and e-mail abuse, backing up their monitoring policies with firm action.

In 2002, Hewlett Packard Compaq disciplined 150 workers in the UK, firing some staff for “viewing and sharing unauthorised and inappropriate material”. Personnel Today’s research found that UK employers spent more time disciplining staff over internet and e-mail abuse than any other workplace issue.

In an environment where staff monitoring is becoming commonplace, employers should strike a balance between being able to detect misconduct, criminal behaviour, abuse of company equipment, and poor work performance on the one hand, and making sure they protect employees’ rights to privacy and maintain staff morale on the other.

In seeking to get the balance right, employers should bear in mind that working days have lengthened in many cases, forcing people to carry out many errands at work. So while people are being increasingly forced to take care of personal business at work – such as online shopping – they are then being criticised for slacking off.

As long as 10 years ago, a report on workplace privacy by the International Labour Organization (ILO) – a UN agency that seeks to promote social justice and internationally recognised employment rights – looked at evidence from 19 countries. It concluded that ‘Big Brother’ looms large in the workplace, and that workers’ health and welfare is being damaged as they are scrutinised by computers, cameras and assorted bugs.

The ILO report examined research from US government agencies the Office of Technological Assessment and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and concluded that electronic monitoring causes stress and can create adverse working conditions, such as:

  • lack of involvement

  • lack of control over tasks

  • reduced task variety and clarity

  • reduced supervisory support

  • fear of job loss

  • routinised work activities

  • reduced social support from peers.

The TUC is among those bodies claiming that employee monitoring initiatives have led to an invasion of employee privacy, a drop in productivity and an increase in stress levels, saying that such initiatives are actually counter-productive. The use of monitoring with CCTV is one of the TUC’s main concerns.

Excessive monitoring undermines staff, leading to greater job-related depression and poorer well-being. Stress levels among frontline call handlers in UK call centres were found to be significantly higher than among benchmark groups in other occupations, according to a study from the Health and Safety Laboratory, Psychosocial risk factors in call centres, 2004.

The report reveals that eavesdropping – electronic performance monitoring by supervisors listening in on calls – is a major cause of work-related stress.

Using technology to monitor staff should not replace good people management skills. It should only ever be used as support, setting clear boundaries and making sure good management skills are in place at all times. It should ensure that the work environment balances the equation of rights.

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