Keeping an Eye on Your Employees Ethically

By business.com editorial staff,
business.com writer
| Updated
Jul 02, 2020
Image Credit: BongkarnThankyakij / Getty Images

Video surveillance and business security systems are prevent more than just shoplifting.

  • Video surveillance systems can not only be beneficial for catching thieves, but they monitor how your employees are spending their time.
  • The use of surveillance systems in businesses is continuing to grow, but it's essential that you are ware of the legal and ethical issues surrounding the use of surveillance systems in the workplace.
  • Employers often justify the use of surveillance systems as a means of protecting their organization, but you must respect employee privacy, so it's important to develop a monitoring program that is both effective as well as defensible.

Businesses use video surveillance systems for a lot more than catching shoplifters or reducing the time employees spend goofing off. "Employee monitoring is being used to increase customer satisfaction, improve employee performance, and enhance productivity," according to Kristin Morgan at St. Francis University.

Video surveillance and business security systems are now used for everything from measuring efficiency, to data security, to compliance with securities laws. The growth in employer surveillance systems is nothing less than stunning. Consider these numbers, from the American Management Association's Workplace Monitoring and Surveillance Report:

  • 82% of managers use some type of electronic monitoring in the workplace
  • One-third of all employees are under surveillance in the workplace
  • 63% of employers monitor employee internet connections
  • 47% store and review employee e-mails
  • 36% review employee computer files
  • 15% use video to record employees on the job
  • 8% store and review of employee voicemail messages

Employers justify their monitoring of employee activities as essential to protect the organization from unwanted actions conducted over the employer's network. The responsibility to secure the network outweighs employees' expectations for privacy in the workplace. Balancing employee privacy and business needs is essential to developing an effective and defensible monitoring program.

Improve employee productivity and safety

In a recent Harris Poll, 66% of small business owners surveyed "believed video surveillance to be the most valuable security measure" as reported by Small Business Trends staff writer Joshua Sophy. In addition, Louis Orbegoso, president of the small business unit of security company ADT, points out, "It's not only about security. It's about insight. The type of information [small businesses] can get is pretty interesting."

It's one thing to use video surveillance to protect against shoplifters and other criminals; it's another to use video surveillance to keep an eye on workers. "While most employees don't mind if retail establishments conduct video surveillance to guard against theft by outsiders," as the NOLO legal website points out, it's quite another thing if employees feel they themselves are under surveillance. Even though cameras can capture safety hazards, flaws in work processes and even sexual harassment, there is still something, well, too Big-Brotherish about it.

Some states have privacy laws that limit the blanket use of video surveillance, and it's generally prohibited to use cameras in places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as a restroom or changing area. Moreover, some employers feel that installing cameras to watch employees implies mistrust, notes Angie Mohr, a blog writer at Intuit: "It can create an environment of distrust that may impact employee performance and retention [...] If an employee has to be concerned about having every motion monitored, she is less likely to be thinking out of the box or coming up with creative solutions. The ultimate result may be less productivity."

How to institute an employee monitoring program

That needn't be the case, however. Here's how to craft a monitoring program that can satisfy the employer's need for information security while minimizing the impact on employee privacy:

  • Be upfront. Don't hide the fact that there are cameras in the workplace, that computers are monitored or that phone calls are recorded. Explain how monitoring protects employees and helps you help them do their work. Honest employees won't be concerned, and the dishonest ones may be discouraged and look for work elsewhere, which is what you want.

  • Establish a company policy. Formulate an employee privacy policy, and stick to it. Define exactly why cameras are there, when they are to be used and how. For example, you may want cameras in your warehouse to observe workflows and promote better safety practices. Or you may want to record customer service calls for the purpose of finding scripts that work well. 

  • Show employees how video surveillance works for them. Share what you discover from analyzing the video. Use it for employee training. Ask employees to review videos for process improvement.
  • Limit use. That means keeping surveillance out of places where employees can expect some privacy, such as a break room.

  • Keep contents secure. It is critical, both legally and ethically, that you keep all contents from the monitoring secure. The information should not be accessible to anyone that does not have a right to view the contents.

  • Stay up to date on legal issues. The laws regarding monitoring of employees are continually changing, so to avoid any unexpected legal issues, it is essential that you stay current on the laws regarding employee monitoring.

It's your business. You have the right to protect it. You also have the right to record what happens on your premises, within certain legal and ethical boundaries. The majority of businesses now monitor their employees in some way. With a few simple precautions, workers can safeguard their personal privacy on the job. And employers can better protect their businesses and the people who work there.

"Reasonable monitoring and surveillance activities protect the rights of employees, create a safe work environment, protect sensitive corporate information and assets, and demonstrate compliance with federal laws," says Kristin Morgan at St. Francis University. "Establishing clearly written, uniformly enforced and reasonable monitoring policies may be the best protection for firms and employees in a time of ambiguous case law and uncertain court rulings."

business.com editorial staff
business.com editorial staff
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