How far are you willing to go to monitor employee activity?

December 14, 2016
How far are you willing to go to monitor employee activity?

As an employer, you probably have a natural urge to monitor employee activity. Don’t worry, this is fairly normal, and there are plenty of valid reasons why you might want to keep an eye on what your team is doing. For example:

– Keeping track of company equipment or vehicles

– Making sure employees are focusing on their work

– Monitoring KPIs and productivity

But for some companies, the need to monitor employee activity goes beyond making sure they aren’t stealing cars or visiting Facebook too much. In fact, some companies are operating what can only be described as a “Big Brother” surveillance operation.

Send in the drones – are some companies taking “Big Brother” to the extreme?

A recent article in HR Grapevine talks about how one company in Western Australia is planning to use drones to monitor employee activity.

Rio Tinto describes itself as a “leading global mining and metals group”. They operate a network of live-in mining camps, and employ thousands of people.

This spring, they announced a deal with French firm Sodexo. The deal is designed to dramatically expand surveillance of their workforce’s private lives. The initiative will see sensors and cameras being hooked up to light poles, rubbish bins, and even robotic drones that scan the areas where their employees live.

Why are they doing this? Well, their stated goal is to use this surveillance to find out where employees are spending their time and money, so that they can improve the quality of their life. But it seems that not all employees agree that this is a good idea.

“How focused can you be knowing there’s drones or cameras constantly watching you everywhere you go?” complained one anonymous employee. And while their intentions may seem honourable… it’s hard not to agree that this seems like a massive intrusion on employee privacy.

Are employers allowed to monitor employee activity?

You’re probably not building a fleet of surveillance drones to see which restaurants your employees are visiting. But you might be wondering exactly what you can and cannot do in terms of monitoring employee activity in the workplace.

According to Citizens Advice, employers have the right to monitor employee activity in many situations. Here are some of the things you are allowed to do:

    • Record workplace activity on CCTV cameras
    • Monitor work-related mail or email
    • Check phone logs and call recordings
    • Review website logs
  • Acquire information from credit reference agencies

Citizens Advice also says that you are allowed to record video footage outside of the workplace. But you should be careful, as all of the above are still covered by data protection law. This means that if you wish to monitor employee activity, you have to stick to certain rules. For example:

    1. You must provide clear reasons for monitoring staff, including the benefits it will provide
    1. You must conduct an “impact assessment” to identify any negative effects the monitoring may have
  1. You must explore alternatives to monitoring that may be less intrusive

Perhaps most importantly, you must almost always tell staff how, and why, they are being monitored. It is also illegal to monitor private areas, such as staff toilets.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should

As long as you stay compliant with data protection laws, you are well within your rights to monitor employee activity. But you should be careful not to go too far. Not because you’re breaking laws… but because your employees probably hate feeling like insects under a microscope!

For many employees, being constantly watched is a very irritating element of micromanagement. In fact, SHRM suggests that too much monitoring can lead to any (or all) of the following:

    • Higher turnover. Employees who feel like they are being watched too closely might just quit their job in search of a more easy-going employer. In fact, jobsite Monster actually advises this response to excessive micromanagement!
  • Lower productivity. Excessive monitoring and censorship can lead to a drop in productivity. This is perhaps partly because employees feel like their employer has little faith in their integrity and ability. The article by SHRM even says that blanket blocking employee access to social media sites like Facebook can be a bad thing for productivity.

Employee monitoring best practices

There is definitely good reason to have a certain level of monitoring at work. Things like CCTV can be invaluable in preventing theft or violence, and monitoring software can help you identify areas for improvement.

In fact, in many industries, monitoring call recordings is a legal requirement!

But before going to town with a fleet of surveillance drones, here is our best-practice advice for monitoring your employees.

    1. Create a clear monitoring policy. Staff will most likely work harder and respect you more if you are open and honest about exactly what you are monitoring. A transparent monitoring policy can help you achieve this, and should clearly outline how and where you are monitoring employees, the kind of behaviour you expect in these areas, and the reason why monitoring them is appropriate.
    1. Notify your employees. A monitoring policy is no good if your employees don’t know it exists. And while you don’t technically need consent to monitor your employees, you do normally need to tell them that it’s happening. Plus, the more open you are about what you are doing, the less your employees will be suspicious of your intentions. Make sure CCTV is clearly signposted, and if you introduce anything new to your monitoring policy, send out a memo reminding employees to take a look.
    1. Avoid targeted monitoring. You should aim to treat all employees the same. What I mean by this, is that you shouldn’t be targeting individuals and following their every move. Rather, you should set clear monitoring policies in place that apply equally to all employees. There are exceptions to this rule, of course – for example, if you suspect an employee is stealing company property.
    1. Restrict access to offensive content. We mentioned that you might not want to blanket-ban social media sites like Facebook, but there are some areas where a blanket ban might be in your best interests. For example, websites with hateful or pornographic content are very rarely – if ever – going to be appropriate in the workplace. Rather than trying to catch your employees visiting them, it might be easier and less intrusive to simply block them.
  1. Avoid monitoring employees’ personal lives. While you may think it is important to make sure employees are not staying up late on a school night, it is normally more sensible to give them their privacy. If something is happening outside of work that is impacting their productivity, talk to them and see how you might be able to help them. This is likely to produce better results than following their Facebook page and trying to catch them red handed.

For more guidance on how to go about monitoring employees, including remote workers, Time Doctor has put together a very useful page called The clear and complete guide to employee monitoring.

Help! I’m being monitored unfairly at work!

If you are an employee who is worried or concerned about the way in which your employer is monitoring your activity, then Citizens Advice gives some good suggestions on how to act.

    1. Check your contract of employment or staff handbook. Your employer should have a monitoring policy in place. It always pays to read this, as it will help you work out whether or not your employer is acting inappropriately.
    1. Talk to your employer and ask them to stop. If your employer is behaving in a way that contradicts your company policy, or that breaks the law, then having a frank discussion with them might help. It is possible they have breached their own policies, or even the law, without realising it.
  1. Ask for help or raise a grievance. If your employer is acting inappropriately, and they have not stopped when asked, you might want to take a grievance against your employer. If you are part of a trade union, they may be able to help you with this.

If you can’t work out whether or not your employer is meeting their legal obligations as set out by data protection law, then you can ask the Information Commissioner for an independent assessment.

How far do you go to monitor employee activity?

Most employers have some sort of monitoring in place. From recording calls to maintain company policy or legal obligations, to installing software that monitors employee activity on work computers, there is a huge range in how much (or how little) employers monitor their employees.

A lot of these differences boil down to the type of industry you work in. But many of them are also down to personal preference.

How far do you go to monitor employee activity at work? Are you building a fleet of surveillance drones?

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