Ethical and legal questions about employee privacy rights

InfoWorld |  Business

The privacy rights of employees is the subject of ongoing debate. Although today's U.S. and state courts tend to reject any legal foundation for such rights, those advocating the recognition of these rights do so from a strong ethical conviction. At present, just about any form of employee monitoring will be upheld in court, but whether such practices make business sense is another question altogether.

Before personal computers existed, a debate ensued on the merits of putting telephones on the desks of employees. At one company where I worked, the rule was that as long as you weren't calling overseas and didn't abuse the privilege, the occasional personal call within the country was officially tolerated. Much the same attitude has colored many companies' approaches to personal use of computer equipment -- as long as the use doesn't create a problem, it won't be treated as a problem.

There may be a strong case for treating employees like grown-ups, but not everyone may be up to that responsibility. Goldbricking in one form or another has afflicted businesses since at least the days of the Romans. Although employer fears of abuse and diversion of effort are often overblown, anecdotal evidence does indicate that when a company begins monitoring its employee use of the Internet, it will detect some abuse, which will in turn drop off sharply once the initial warnings are issued. Generally, a warning is all that's needed to bring most people within bounds.

Here's where I advocate an open policy. Make it clear to employees just how and when you will be monitoring them, and outline the uses that you will not tolerate and the penalties that will result from such violations. You should work with the human resources department and your company's lawyers to ensure that this policy is enforceable. You should also ensure that the list of prohibited uses is frequently reviewed and easily amendable so that you can react quickly to the PointCasts and Napsters of the future.

Of course, monitoring Internet traffic is only part of the puzzle and is best used as a trip wire for intensive monitoring of a problem employee. For these instances, you need a category of software that I would never tolerate being used on myself: the so-called "activity monitors." Tools like these say to an employee, "We don't trust you. One false step and you're history." Although that's not exactly what you'd call a healthy worker/boss relationship, things descend all too often to that level.

By the time a problem has become serious enough to warrant activity monitoring, the employee should already know that he or she is in deep trouble.

Today's activity monitors do much more than just capture keystrokes and mouse movements by recording how long windows stay active and open; they act as a complete record of the computer's use.

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