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Who’s looking over your shoulder? The truth about employee monitoring

(Image credit: Image Credit: Helloquence / Unsplash)

Is your employer watching your every move? According to new research from Broadband Genie which looked at occupational privacy for 1,997 British employees, the modern workforce has no idea what the legal guidelines are for workplace monitoring. About 79% of the people surveyed believed that their boss didn't have the legal right to monitor their personal social media accounts, and many respondents had no idea how much their online behaviour might impact their job.   

On top of that, 58% of the workers surveyed thought their boss couldn't open their emails without permission, 53% said that companies couldn't legally record work phone calls, and 36% believed that their browser history was protected from infiltration.   

As scary as it might sound, solicitors and Citizen's Advice both explain that UK workplaces have the right to monitor their employees' use of email, the internet, and phones if they are doing so for work reasons, and the worker has been informed. In other words, your boss can install CCTV, check out what you've been doing online, and browse your emails at his or her leisure.   

What is Workplace Monitoring? 

While the law doesn't give grant omniscient powers to watch your every move 24/7, ultimately employers have more rights than UK workers may think. They can monitor your activities with automated software, check your phone logs to make sure you're performing well, and even collect information about you from your credit reference agencies.   

When it comes to watching employees, businesses are guided by data protection law. While data protection laws don't prevent monitoring in the workplace, they do establish rules about how and when monitoring should be carried out. For instance, businesses need to be clear about why they're watching over their staff, and they also need to think carefully about whether the monitoring is justified.   

But most companies will want to think carefully about whether watching their employees is actually worth it, in terms of the impact it can have on everything from company culture to staff morale. In Broadband Genie's survey, 71% of respondents said that they would feel unhappy about their employer monitoring their personal social media and phone accounts. Another third of respondents said that they'd be unhappy if their employer opened their work mail or email, while 21% felt that their business looking at the websites they had visited was an invasion of privacy.   

Employees Don't Like Being Watched   

When asked to identify which people they wouldn't mind monitoring their web activity, the respondents to Broadband Genie's survey ranked employers second from the bottom, with a "trust score" of only 2.10. The government (2.43), police (3.28), and intelligence agencies (3.26) all ranked higher, with only local councils achieving a lower score of 2.06.   

It's no surprise that employees feel uncomfortable about the concept of workplace monitoring. After all, many of us are guilty of doing things we're not supposed to at work; the survey also found that 43% of workers admitted to checking web sites unrelated to their jobs during work hours.   

While a lot of companies believe that monitoring staff can improve efficiency and productivity in the workplace, by reducing the risk of procrastination, it's worth measuring the pros and cons of employee surveillance when it comes to helping a company thrive. 

The Pros and Cons: Is Employee Monitoring Worth It?   

It's safe to say that there are plenty of reasons why an employer might choose to watch the way his or her staff spend their time at work. Though surveillance is certainly a sensitive topic for employees, it can also help to address many key issues for the business environment. For instance: 

  • Employee monitoring can help to determine how employees spend their work time, and what might be done to enhance productivity. 
  • Monitoring phone calls from and to clients can offer insights into how employees interact with clients, allowing businesses to create or refine communication standards for their organisation.   
  • Monitoring employee emails and telephone communications can create a log that future staff can refer to in the case of customer service problems. In other words, it gives the company a chance to learn from its mistakes. 
  • Monitoring employees can help with legal issues, by allowing businesses to produce records to defend against suits. 

The only problem is, as useful as monitoring might be from a company perspective, it's often seen as highly intrusive from an employee point of view. Not only can constant surveillance introduce a higher level of stress into the workplace, damaging company culture, and sometimes boosting employee turnover, but it can also place a strain on workers. If staff feel as though they're constantly being reviewed, they might feel overwhelmed, and restricted.   

Some businesses might find that their staff innovation begins to suffer, as workers become too afraid to think outside of the box or try creative solutions to problems.   

The Legal Perspective: What Rights do Employees Have?   

According to experts, businesses can't simply monitor employees without their knowledge in most cases. Specialist employment lawyer at Lexoo, Karin Henson, said that employers need to outline the potential for monitoring in employee contracts and handbooks. Additionally, businesses will need to highlight why and when they might monitor employees.   

In response to the latest survey, the Head of Strategy for Broadband Genie, Rob Hilborn, said that the lack of knowledge around monitoring activities was worrying. According to him, it might be time for workers to spend more time reading their employee handbook to find out what kind of monitoring their employer might use.    

Richard Parr, partner in the Employment Law team for Blacks Solicitors, noted that if employees are worried about their privacy at work, then it's up to them to show caution in their profession. In other words, make sure that you don't use work devices to check personal emails, social media, or anything else you don't want your boss to see.   

At the end of the day, employers do have the right to monitor their employees. However, the question remains whether businesses should take advantage of this right, and to what extent. After all, snooping on employees might seem like a good idea on the surface, but it's important to measure the benefits, against a potential loss in company culture, and staff morale. 

Rebekah Carter, Writer, BroadbandGenie

Image Credit: Helloquence / Unsplash

Rebekah Carter is a writer for She writes about everything from privacy in the workplace to fashion and technology.