The increasing use of surveillance in the workplace requires employers to balance their need for monitoring with the privacy concerns of employees. With the use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology as applied, for example, in a hospital, an employer today can track how quickly a nurse or technician responds to a patient call and determine where all employees are in case of an emergency. Although RFID, in this case, was originally was meant to monitor quality of care, it can also be used to respond to allegations of neglect made by patients.
Due to technology advances over the past decade, many mid- to large-sized employers today use employee monitoring technology of some type with almost no notice by employees. However, workplace surveillance and monitoring are becoming the subject of workplace disputes as more employers implement RFID, global positioning systems (GPS), and biometric technology to monitor the movement of goods and people.
The different forms of monitoring can be used to track the location of an employee, either within a workplace using RFID or anywhere in the world using GPS or even to identify who a worker is in case of biometric surveillance.
With the increased monitoring comes very little regulation in the U.S. so far. However, workplace privacy concerns have received more attention in other countries with laws passed in Australia, Canada, and the European Union to regulate how information is gathered and what is done with the data.
Although such technology tools as RFIF, GPS and biometric surveillance was never originally intended to infringe on worker privacy, it has become a concern for many people these days who feel that employers are not weighing the privacy concerns of workers when they introduce new surveillance technology. In addition, vendors are primarily selling the technology as a way to monitor workers rather than improve customer
On the other hand, there is nothing stopping employers from using the technology to monitor workers. In essence, employees in the U.S. should have no expectation of workplace privacy except for protection against videotaping of bathrooms and dressing rooms.
In addition to the constant monitoring of workers in many different ways, the other bigger concern is that of the massive amounts of data that are being collected with these technologies which are often stored by third-party providers. In fact, as we’ve already had witnessed to with many high profile cases, data breaches could mean personal information—including Social Security numbers and private medical records—could be vulnerable. In other words, who is watching the watchers!
Going forward, employers will need to adapt to the rapid development of communications technologies by developing technology policies that are fully explained in a practical way. As of right now, most employers have established company policy regarding internet and e-mail use on company-owned computers and phones. However, as employers incorporate new technology with company property, such as GPS programs and devices in phones and vehicles, they will need to carefully prepare clear policy statements that honestly and accurately inform employees about the limits of their personal privacy at work.
Any policy addressing workplace monitoring should establish that the employer owns the computers, phones, vehicles, or other equipment, and clearly tells the employee that he/she has no expectation of privacy in communications sent with the equipment, even if the employee marks a file as private or attaches a password to a computer file. In addition, there is a need for the employer to train both managers and employees about company standards of workplace behavior and the limited personal privacy that may be available when an employee uses communication equipment provided by
In general, an employer can monitor employee usage of employer electronic communications systems and devices. The following are a few recommendations for an employer when developing an employee monitoring policy:
- Clearly inform employees in policies and through training that the company will monitor employee usage of employer electronic communications systems and devices.
- Clearly describe access to employee corporate e-mail accounts or other computer files by employers or law enforcement under certain appropriate circumstances.
- Clearly inform employees in policies and through training that employees should have no expectation of privacy when using employer electronic communications systems and devices.
- Consult with your legal counsel especially if you allow employees to use employer electronic communications systems and devices for personal reasons or to access personal accounts or sites via the internet as such personal use could interfere with employer monitoring.
- Although the U.S. is behind many other industrialized nations in regulating workplace privacy, you should always check with specific state requirements on regulations regarding the monitoring of electronic communications.