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What is Employee Monitoring?

Tonya Fletcher SPHR, SHRM-SCP
by Tonya Fletcher SPHR, SHRM-SCP on September 13, 2022

Although remote work is popular among employees, it poses challenges for employers who are used to keeping a watchful eye over work production.

Employee monitoring is a growing practice in which employers use digital tools to monitor their staff’s real-time locations and activities.

Employers may implement these practices to gauge or improve employee productivity, measure how workers spend their time, evaluate in-house and remote staff, and protect company data against disclosure or theft.

However, before deciding to implement an employee monitoring system, employers should consider whether they have a legitimate business reason, if that interest outweighs the employees' right to privacy, and if the program is worth the cost.

Ways to Monitor Your Employees

Employers may monitor their employees in various ways—through websites, email, social media, phone, GPS, time tracking, application monitoring, keylogging, keycards, and video surveillance. The most common techniques include keycards, email and network monitoring, telephone tapping, GPS tracking, and monitoring software.

Before deciding which method is best suited for your organization, consider the pros and cons of employee monitoring.

The Pros and Cons of Implementing Employee Monitoring

Take a look at some of the benefits of monitoring your employees:

1. Increased Productivity and Employee Performance

Monitoring can improve employee productivity by reducing the temptation to excessively browse non-work websites. If employees are aware they’re being monitored, they may be less inclined to engage in personal browsing or search sites that may be frowned upon while working.

Monitoring also provides employers with insights and data on employee productivity. Understanding engagement trends, like how productivity levels vary throughout the day, can allow employers to optimize work processes. According to the 2017 State of the American Workplace report from Gallup, it is estimated that actively disengaged employees can cost the U.S. between $483 billion to $605 billion each year in lost productivity. Monitoring can provide disengaged employees, managers, and HR with benchmarks that can be used to track and improve employee performance.

2. A Better Understanding of Workforce Trends

Statistical models can be applied to the work-related data from employee monitoring programs and used for business optimization. Modern workforce analytics software tools can help predict and inform business outcomes with consistent, continuous measurement over time. Among other things, this can help you make data-informed decisions, analyze and improve resource use, understand how your remote teams work, and see how your team communicates and operates.

3. Greater Protection Against Data Breaches

Organizations that collect, process, and/or store sensitive information are responsible for the security and integrity of that data. Computer monitoring software can help ensure that employees use the organization’s systems safely and handle sensitive information in compliance with the company’s security policies.

4. Improved Working Conditions and Reduced Legal Liability

If left unaddressed, internet abuse in the workplace can present a significant risk as employees that visit inappropriate, pornographic, or otherwise harmful websites during work hours can create a hostile work environment for their coworkers. Electronic monitoring software has been rated as the most effective deterrent of inappropriate web use, followed by policies and training, according to a study on employee internet abuse by Dr. Kimberly S. Young and Dr. Carl J. Case.

The pros are compelling, but the cons should be considered as well. Take a look at some of the potential downsides of implementing an employee monitoring system.

1. Negative Employee Morale and Company Culture

Using overly invasive practices like stealth monitoring, keystroke logging, and monitoring non-work web browsing may negatively affect employee morale and company culture. To reduce the impact that employee monitoring can have on morale, be sure to monitor as a standard workplace policy rather than using with only certain individuals or as a micromanaging tool.

2. Employee Privacy Concerns and Lack of Trust

With employee monitoring systems, workers may worry that their personal lives are being monitored and that their sensitive data could be misused or accessed by unauthorized parties. Employers must do everything they can to limit monitoring to only what is necessary and keep their monitoring solutions separate from the personal lives of their employees.

3. Costly and Time-Consuming

Monitoring can be expensive, especially for small businesses. It may not be worth installing expensive computer software or surveillance equipment and hiring qualified workers to maintain the system and review the data, especially if significant improvements aren’t likely. If performance can be measured in some valid way, then doing so may provide better insight than monitoring.

4. Invasive Monitoring Can Lead to Legal Issues

The legal factors that can influence an employer’s right to monitor include jurisdiction, union agreements, proportionality regarding the level of invasiveness, privacy expectations, and disclosure.

While the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 gives employers the federal right to monitor their employees’ verbal and written communications under certain circumstances, some state laws regulate this activity.

For example, New York has become the latest state to require employers to notify employees of monitoring. In Connecticut, all companies that monitor their employees in the workplace must inform them in writing ahead of time and note the tracking methods used. In Idaho, if an employer is monitoring with video cameras, those cameras may record only video, not audio, without prior consent.

In California, Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, each state’s constitution explicitly declares that residents have a right to privacy; with that, employers may need to tread carefully when setting up employee monitoring systems. Before undertaking employee monitoring, be sure to check the laws in your state.

If you decide to move forward with employee monitoring, keep this in mind: Transparency is always a good practice. It helps employees feel more secure and will help protect your business from potential legal action. It’s also a good idea to disclose the reasons for the program and how the surveillance aligns with your organization’s goals. Lastly, be sure to apply the program fairly across the entire organization, including top-level leaders. Presenting and maintaining a fairly perceived monitoring system can be an important step to gaining employee cooperation.

Clients of FrankCrum can reach out to HR experts regarding a wide range of employee relations topics. Learn how we can help you here.

Tonya Fletcher SPHR, SHRM-SCP
Tonya Fletcher SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Tonya is the Labor Compliance Manager at FrankCrum. In this role, she leads the FrankAdvice team of HR consultants and manages the delivery and content of best practice HR information to client owners and managers. When she’s not at work, Tonya enjoys international travel.