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Common Employee Monitoring Concerns

Neel Lukka
Neel Lukka
Managing Director at CurrentWare

Employee monitoring is a valuable people analytics tool, but it can be perceived as invasive.

Businesses use employee monitoring software to gain insights into how their workforce operates. They analyze user activity data to manage software utilization, understand the average activity levels of their employees, and detect high-risk behavior. 

If you would like to use these tools in your business you need to understand the concerns that your employees may have. You need to work with them to put in place an employee monitoring strategy that is fair, transparent, and minimally invasive. Here are four of the most common concerns employees have about monitoring. 

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1. Employers are spying on them

A lack of transparency contributes to negative perceptions among employees. Employees that are not aware if they are being monitored, why they are being monitored, and how they are being monitored are less likely to find employee monitoring acceptable.

Employees will naturally experience greater levels of anxiety when they do not have a clear understanding of their employer's intentions. Will their every move be micromanaged and scrutinized by an untrusting boss? Or is their employer genuinely using monitoring technology to improve security and address only clearly egregious use of company assets?

Monitoring methods that are disproportionately invasive further contribute to negative perceptions of employee monitoring. The general principle that should be followed is to use the least invasive methods available to meet the company’s goals. 

For example, the goal of enforcing acceptable use policies can be met by tracking internet browsing history without capturing individual keystrokes (keylogging). 

Examples of invasive monitoring:

  • Capturing individual keystrokes (private messages, passwords, etc)

  • Recording audio/video from the employee’s computer

  • Monitoring extraprofessional activity such as personal social media content

Whether or not any given form of monitoring is considered disproportionately invasive relies heavily on the employment context. Heavily regulated industries with stringent data loss prevention requirements will require more granular monitoring whereas employers seeking to improve productivity will need to use less invasive methods.

How to reduce the perceived invasiveness of monitoring

Transparency is critical here. Gartner’s "The Future of Employee Monitoring" report found that the acceptance rate of email monitoring grew by 20% among employees after their employer explained their reasons for monitoring emails. 

Your employees need to be provided with a clear understanding of your intentions. They need to understand your organization's goals and how the metrics being captured relate to those goals.

Proportionality between the impact on employee privacy as it relates to your company’s goals is also a significant factor. When you monitor your employees you should avoid monitoring more than is necessary for your legitimate business needs. 

Once you have a clear plan of your goals you must use the least invasive methods available to meet them. Even if your business is not required to by law, consider using a Data Privacy Impact Assessment to help guide you through this process.

  • Be as transparent with your employees as possible. Don't simply leave a vague paragraph about your right to monitor company equipment buried in an acceptable use policy. Be specific about what is being monitored, how it is being monitored, and how that data will be used. Supplement your written policies with in-person discussions and provide a channel for employees to provide feedback.

  • Involve a representative sample of employees in the planning process. The concerns of your employees need to be represented when you plan your key metrics and the methods you’ll be using to capture them.

  • Do not monitor personal devices. Even if you allow your employees to use personal devices for work purposes, monitoring those devices is far too invasive. In addition, if your employees are allowed to use company-provided devices for personal reasons consider scheduling monitoring to only take place during designated work hours.

  • Provide your employees with access to their own data. This lets them see exactly what is being captured. They can even benefit from self-managing their own productivity based on the insights. This will provide your employees with greater autonomy and reduce the perception that monitoring is a sign of a lack of trust.

Their contributions won't be recognized outside of the data collected

The second common concern from employees is that employee monitoring data will be used as the sole source of truth when it comes to assessing their performance. 

Employee monitoring makes sense as a business intelligence tool but it doesn't provide the full context of how individual employees are performing. There are several work-adjacent tasks that aren’t adequately captured by monitoring computer activit

Work-adjacent tasks include:

  • In-person meetings

  • Deep thinking and planning

  • Conversations with coworkers

Best practices for using employee monitoring data

  • Don't automate decisions based on monitoring data. Important decisions require the nuanced perspective of a human observer. For example, if your internet monitoring software alerts you to potential visits to NSFW websites you should verify the content of the websites and discuss the incident with the employee before making any decisions that may impact them.  

  • Focus on outputs rather than inputs. Some degree of unproductive computer usage is normal. Research from Brent Coker of the University of Melbourne has even found that so-called "cyberslacking" has a positive effect on productivity so long as the time spent is no greater than 12% of work time. Placing a greater emphasis on high-level productivity metrics such as key deliverables empowers your employees to manage their own productivity and demonstrates that you trust them to self-manage. 

  • Understand the limitations of employee monitoring. Employee monitoring data does not provide a full context for all employee activity. Refrain from exclusively using monitoring data to assess the performance of individual employees. Instead, use the data collected to understand high-level trends throughout your workforce.

They don't know who will have access to their data

Employee monitoring data can be potentially sensitive. Once an employee’s data is captured it is left in the custody of their employer and they have limited control over its security and privacy. This causes concerns among employees that their data will not be adequately protected and safeguarded from misuse.

Examples of sensitive employee monitoring data:

  • Search queries surrounding protected classes (race, religion, disabilities, etc)

  • Location data from company-provided mobile devices

  • Personally identifiable information (PII)

This data can be abused if not properly safeguarded. Employees may fear the possibility of blackmail, data leaks, and social strife if their data falls into the wrong hands. They may also be concerned the data will be unfairly used against them during performance reviews.

Measures you can take to safeguard employee data from misuse

  • Limit who has access to employee data. Direct access to employee monitoring data should be limited to key stakeholders in your company. These stakeholders should be well versed in your company’s policies and have a thorough understanding of the privacy expectations of your employees. 

  • Treat employee monitoring data as sensitive. Administrative and technical security measures need to be put in place to protect employee monitoring data. This can include requiring authorization to access databases and periodically culling records that are no longer relevant. The above tip also doubles as a security measure as there are fewer credentials that could be compromised by threat actors to gain unlawful access to the data. 

Employee monitoring will be used to punish them

Monitoring will be perceived as far more invasive when individual employees are scrutinized based on the data captured. When employees are first approached with the concept of being monitored they may feel that their employer is seeking to find reasons to discipline them rather than focusing on their contributions. Micromanaging and punishing employees in this way breeds feelings of resentment and reduces their sense of autonomy. 

How to use monitoring data fairly

  • Focus on high-level insights rather than individuals. Use employee monitoring as a workforce analytics tool rather than as a means of tracking individuals. Unless you have a legitimate business reason to focus on individual employees you should place a greater emphasis on departments and workgroups as a whole.

  • Limit actions that are taken for minor events. An otherwise highly productive employee may very well occasionally partake in non-work web browsing to give themselves a mental break. Unless a clear trend of time theft and disengagement is evident you should limit addressing these minor events.

Employee monitoring software provides business owners with insights into how their workforce operates. For the best results, employers must be fully transparent about their goals and methods, involve a representative sample of employees in the planning process, contextualize the data they collect, and ensure that the data is kept safe from misuse. 

Image Credit: anyaberkut/Getty Images
Neel Lukka
Neel Lukka
business.com Member
See Neel Lukka's Profile
I am the Managing Director of CurrentWare Inc., a global provider of software-based computer monitoring solutions for endpoint security, data loss prevention & internet access control. I am also the founder of OneLocal, a cloud-based SaaS marketing provider that was a part of the San Francisco-based YCombinator accelerator. My background includes a Bachelor of Commerce from Queen’s University, experiences with investment banking where I successfully completed all levels of examination through the CFA Institute, and 8 years of executive leadership experience within B2B software companies in sectors such as employee productivity, data loss prevention, marketing, and lead generation.