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Can You Spy On Your Employees At Work?

by Alan Price, senior director for employment law consultancy firm Peninsula

As an employer, do you ever think about monitoring your employees? Do you ever consider checking where they are via the GPS tracker in their company smartphone? Do you get home and go through an employee’s personal social networking posts, checking that they’ve not posted something controversial?

Devices, the internet, and social media have lifted the fog of war. The ease with which you can check which route somebody drove their company car to their meeting, or review every single keystroke on their company laptop, is unnerving.

And so, a pertinent question emerges: can you spy on an employee at work?

First, let’s go through how an employer will likely monitor an employee during the 21st century. Monitoring and spying have different connotations. Monitoring evokes images of assessment, such as when a line manager sits in on an employee’s sales calls for two hours to make sure the employee is ticking the boxes, using empathy, tone of voice, and narrative to intrigue the potential customer. Monitoring evokes the feeling of standard operating procedure.

But spying, of course, has a seam of secrecy sewn into it. If you’re spying on, rather than monitoring, one or more of your staff, you’re probably going to extreme steps to do so–such as microscopic cameras in the bathrooms or flying drones around the work site, without staff knowing.

So, we’ve now got two questions.

Question one: can you monitor your employees?

Yes you can, but you need legitimate reasons. You must clarify with all of your employees why it is you’re conducting any monitoring. For example, you might begin monitoring phone calls with customers for training purposes.

Or you might introducing monitoring to safeguard staff and members of the public.

You should also think about highlighting and explaining the benefits for introducing monitoring in your workplace.

When an employee joins your business, they’ll sign various documents, such as their contract of employment. They also normally sign a document to declare that they will adhere to your company’s policies, and thus strive to not breach said policies.

When thinking about introducing workplace monitoring, you should consider whether any less intrusive alternatives to monitoring exist to achieve your goal. If the answer is yes, you should choose to move forward with the alternative(s).

In managing the monitoring of employees, you’d be wise to identify any negative effects that monitoring might have on your employees and your workplace culture.

Furthermore, you should strive to conduct all monitoring in such a ways as to be consistent with all employees.

Some ways in which you might choose to monitor your staff:

  • Monitoring of email usage.
  • Monitoring of website visits.
  • Recording and listening in on telephone calls.
  • GPS tracking of company devices such as cars and smartphones.
  • Bag searches.

If you plan to carry out bag searches, you must have a policy in place that informs employees that their bags/large purses will be subject to searches. Remember, you must have a legitimate and work-related reason to do so.

Monitoring IT equipment and systems.

Your policy covering employee gross misconduct should state that an employee using the company’s computers, laptops, tablets, phones, or internet to visit sites related to pornography, hate crime, gambling, and other typically banned sites, will be in breach of company policy.

You should include all policies in your company’s staff handbook, which all staff should receive a copy of when they commence their employment. Make the handbook accessible via email, too; additionally, whenever you update a policy and thus the handbook, circulate the revised version to all employees.

Inside your handbook, you should clarify whether you will be monitoring internet browsing history, outgoing and incoming emails, physical mail correspondence, and phone calls.

If you have the budget, investing in an on-site or off-site IT team would enable you to pay closer attention to internet and device security.

Question two: can you spy on your employees?

Spying on your employee, or using covert monitoring tactics, is rarely legal. The chances that an employee will make a claim and take you to an employment tribunal are high.

You must be able to justify covert monitoring. If you suspect an employee is guilty of criminal activity or malpractice, you will need to provide some evidence to back up your suspicions, and even then, unless your suspicions are true–as evidenced by your spying–the courts will likely find you in breach of human rights. Of course, different countries have different laws.

An example of covert monitoring would be bugging staff toilets with cameras or microphones, or following an employee to a supposed meeting.

In conclusion, it’s better, more honest, and safer to monitor your employees, not spy on them.

If a person is going to conduct any monitoring, always make sure that they are trained in how to monitor staff properly. For example, if an employee has a company car, you should avoid tracking their whereabouts during non-working hours or on their lunch break.

 

Alan Price is senior director for employment law consultancy firm Peninsula; managing director of Peninsula Ireland and Elected Director & Trustee for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development – CIPD. Alan Price also sat for four years as a board director at The Chambers of Commerce Ireland and on their audit committee. Alan is a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD with over 15 years’ experience in employee relations.

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