Sunday, March 18, 2007

Electronic monitoring in the workplace

Electronic monitoring in the workplace
University of Waterloo CS 492 Article
Written by: Mike Jutan

The wave of computerization in our modern society has clearly swept the business world along in its current. As a result of the computerization of the business world, along with increasing levels of creativity in information technology careers, major changes have been made to the traditional employer-employee relationship. As our society continues to increase the level of computerization in the working world, the relationship between the employer and the employee will need to be continually modified to meet the ever-changing conditions of the work environment.

One of the issues that reflects a change in employer-employee relations is the matter of electronic monitoring in the workplace. Creative professionals in the modern day are given many freedoms in the workplace that did not exist for previous generations. For instance, flex-time has become a very important condition of the work environment, as it allows for people such as creative software engineers to control their own work hours. The managers of many technology companies no longer dictate the exact working hours of the creative professional. This shift to flex-time suggests that employers now trust their employees more, and rely on their employees to monitor their own hours and maintain their own level of performance. Employees are encouraged by this type of treatment from managers, as it implies a sense of respect and trust.

An issue affecting this trust is electronic monitoring. Some companies maintain the view that various types of electronic monitoring of their employees is necessary for legal concerns. Studies which are mentioned in this paper imply that some kinds of electronic monitoring can increase stress in employees. This tension can disintegrate the sense of good will and trust between an employee and his or her employer. This essay will focus on the issue of electronic monitoring, by describing the types of electronic monitoring that are available in the workplace today. This essay will outline arguments for and against electronic monitoring, discussing possible benefits as well as concerns and drawbacks.

There are a wide range of available technologies for employers to monitor employee behaviour. Devices and software systems are available that monitor telephone usage and statistics, email, voice mail, internet searches, webpage queries, and even the number of hours per day spent typing on the keyboard. Specific examples of some of these technologies will now be discussed.

Telephone monitoring can occur on several different levels. A recording system can be used which simply records the conversation that an employee is having on the telephone. These systems are common. When a customer calls a company that has telephone monitoring in place, they may be notified that the conversation they are having may be recorded for quality assurance purposes.[1] An exception to the regular monitoring procedures is made in the case of personal phone calls. If an employer is monitoring a personal call, he or she must immediately stop monitoring the call once the call has been determined to be of a personal nature. The concern in this case from the employee’s point-of-view is that the employer may not cease the monitoring of a personal phone call until after the employee has discussed private issues that they do not wish to divulge to the employer. For example, consider the case where an employee is no longer satisfied with their working conditions, and is considering the possibility of terminating employment with their current employer. The employee’s wife calls the employee at work, and his phone call is monitored. The first few minutes of the conversation between the employee and his wife could contain sensitive information about the employee’s personal opinion of the workplace or of his fellow employees. It is therefore probable that the employee would not want to reveal these feelings to his employer. A keen sense of curiosity or a lack of judgment on the part of the person monitoring the calls could be of major detriment to the future of the employee.

Telephone monitoring can also be carried out by a device called a pen register. This device logs the phone numbers that are dialed from an employee’s phone, and also the length of each call. This information can be used, for example, to monitor how long a technical support representative spends on the telephone debugging a customer’s problems. The concern here is that the duration of calls is not necessarily a good metric to determine a technical support representative’s performance, as it lacks consideration of the employee’s quality of service.

Computer monitoring takes many forms as well. Hard drive monitoring enables the employer to search and access files which are stored on the employee’s hard drive. Employers may also potentially monitor what is displayed on an employee’s computer screen at any given time. A common type of computer monitoring is network monitoring, where website visits are tracked and a firewall may be used to limit employee access to certain undesirable websites. The argument can be made that these sites should be blocked. In the case where an employee lacks the correct judgment and visits an adult site while on a work computer, it is possible that a customer or a client could be in the building at the time. If a client noticed an employee looking at an adult site, it could harm the client’s view of the company and of the company’s policies. Even though this would be an error on the part of the employee, it may be viewed by the client as a lack of discipline from the management level.

The blocking of certain ports is possible within a corporate intranet system so as to restrict or prevent access to instant messaging programs. These programs can be viewed as a distraction to employees, so the employer may have an interest in preventing the employees from using software of this nature. Lewis Maltby, the President of the National Workrights Institute, a nonprofit group in Princeton, New Jersey believes in the importance of allowing multiple methods of communication,

“People go to the Web with intensely personal problems they would probably never discuss over the telephone or by e-mail because they're so extremely sensitive -- you can go to the Web anonymously.”[2]

Computer monitoring also has a clear social drawback. Employees may feel that their superiors do not trust them. Computer monitoring can be viewed as a personal attack on the credibility and maturity of the employees. These types of monitoring often detract from the working environment in numerous ways, as outlined in the article The electronic invasion of workplace privacy in The Worklife Report:

“Not only does electronic monitoring have the "potential" to adversely influence working conditions which have been shown to cause stress, it may actually create these adverse working conditions, such as paced work, lack of involvement, reduced task variety and clarity, reduced peer social support, reduced supervisory support, fear of job loss, routinized work activities and lack of control over tasks.”[3]

Another type of computer monitoring is the monitoring and storing of emails. If an electronic mail (e-mail) system is used at a company, the employer owns it and is allowed to review its contents. [4] According to a survey carried out by the American Management Association in 2005, 55% of employers store and review email messages. [5] Due to the legal concerns related to the employer being ultimately responsible for the actions that the employees carry out using the employer’s email system, there seems to be a valid reason for storing emails. One of the heavily publicized cases where prior emails were scanned for legal reasons was the US vs. Microsoft Anti-trust case of the late 1990s. The Justice Department requested the entire text of email messages that circulated between executives at Microsoft and which related to the claim that Microsoft was intentionally trying to push Netscape out of the internet browser market. These emails were used in the case against Microsoft to try to prove that they used anti-competitive practices in their dealings with Netscape. Also used as evidence was a memo from senior Microsoft executive Paul Martiz to Bill Gates, listing several working goals for Microsoft, including the goal to “Move Netscape out of the [Windows 95] Internet client [software] arena.” According to Microsoft’s own incriminating internal documents, they had embarked on a “jihad” to “cut off Netscape's air supply.” [6] Cases such as the US vs. Microsoft Anti-trust case make a strong argument for the storage and archiving of company email messages. Someone with an opposing view would suggest that a company saving their employee’s emails is an attack on employee privacy. Due to legal concerns and the use of these emails as evidence suggests that email storage and archiving is actually quite an important and useful form of employee monitoring, and allows for the government to monitor the management and morality of companies in general. Perhaps this type of monitoring should be widespread due to its effectiveness. To ensure their privacy is kept intact, employees should simply maintain extra caution when sending personal information via email through their company. If they have incredibly sensitive personal information, they should perhaps use their own private telephone line or cell phone to transfer this information rather than use the company email system.

When we look at the available evidence to support both sides of the electronic monitoring argument, we can see that the answer is not black or white. There are some types of electronic monitoring, such as email storage and archiving, which have been incredibly useful for the purposes of ensuring corporate responsibility, in cases such as the US vs. Microsoft Anti-trust case. Although email storage and archiving is viewed by some as an infringement on employee privacy, the increasing role that electronic evidence plays in lawsuits and government agency investigations[7] cannot be overlooked. Other types of employee monitoring that were discussed in this paper, such as website monitoring, have obvious social drawbacks. Creative professionals expect certain levels of respect and trust from their employers, and invasive employee monitoring systems can cause stress and disapproval from workers.

In my opinion, I feel that it is a company’s responsibility to maintain a high level of respect and appreciation for their employees and not to trample on their rights. While I believe some forms of electronic monitoring, such as email storage and archiving, are necessary for legal reasons, I do not feel that unnecessary over-monitoring is a fair practice. Personally, I am incredibly uncomfortable if I feel that someone is looking over my shoulder as I do my work. I would also be much less efficient in an environment that had mandatory rules such as start and end time. As a creative professional, I am often thinking about work or solving problems when I am not physically at work. It is a company’s responsibility to be flexible with creative professionals if the company wishes to receive maximum output and efficiency from these employees. Creative professionals strive in an environment where they are given freedom and responsibility. If a company stifles the employees or makes the employees feel as if they are being constantly watched, the employees will not tolerate this poor management and will subsequently leave the company. Employers should be very careful to implement only those types of electronic monitoring that they actually need, and they should only hire employees who are trustworthy.


“2005 Electronic Monitoring & Surveillance Survey.” American Management Association (2005): n.pag. Online. World Wide Web. 30 Jan. 2007. Available:

Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. “Microsoft Assailed in Court.” The Washington Post (October 1998): n.pag. Online. World Wide Web. 30 Jan. 2007. Available:

“Employee Monitoring: Is there Privacy in the Workplace?” Privacy Rights Clearing House (February 2006): n.pag. Online. World Wide Web. 30 Jan. 2007. Available:

Goodin, Dan. “Microsoft, Intel wage war of words.” CNET (November 1998): n.pag. Online. World Wide Web. 30 Jan. 2007. Available:,+Intel+wage+war+of+words/2100-1023_3-217848.html

Keller, Larry. “Monitoring employees: Eyes in the workplace.” Cable News Network (CNN) (January 2001): n.pag. Online. World Wide Web. 30 Jan. 2007. Available:

Pai, Raj et al. “Electronic monitoring in the workplace.” Stanford University: Computers, Ethics and Social Responsibility (1995-1996): n.pag. Online. World Wide Web. 30 Jan. 2007. Available:

The electronic invasion of workplace privacy.” The Worklife Report (1995): Vol.9, Iss. 5; pg. 4. Online. World Wide Web. 30 Jan. 2007. Available:

[1] Workplace Privacy. (San Diego: Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, 2006)

[2] Larry Keller, Monitoring employees: Eyes in the workplace. (Online: Cable News Network (CNN), 2001)

[3] The electronic invasion of workplace privacy. The Worklife Report. (Ottawa: IR Research Publications, 1995)

[4] Workplace Privacy. (San Diego: Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, 2006)

[5] 2005 Electronic Monitoring & Surveillance Survey. (New York: American Management Association, 2005)

[6] Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Microsoft Assailed in Court. (Washington: The Washington Post Company, 1998)

[7] Workplace Privacy. (San Diego: Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, 2006).


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