Technology allows invasion of the workplace

Katy Murray
Managing Editor     

   The age of technology reached a new medium in the workplace in recent years as it caused a growing trend among wary employers known as “monitoring.”

   Many workers now feel their employers may be going too far by invading their right to privacy. The Supreme Court defines privacy as the right of the individual to control the dissemination of information about oneself. However in many places of business the monitoring of employees may include: searches, Internet use, telephone tapping, video cameras or testing either physically or psychologically.

   “Whenever I interview a person for a job at my company, I have them take a personality test answering questions about their work ethic, stamina and goals in life, and so on,” said small business owner Donald Lobell of Springfield, La. “If they aren’t well-suited for the position I can usually tell and it saves the waste of both my time and the person I’m interviewing.” 

    Most companies that monitor insist no other way exists for managers to know how workers perform and interact with customers. They monitor with the purpose of gauging employee productivity. This positive reason has a flip-side however because at times the collection of information about a worker does not directly relate to their work at all. In that situation the employer can be held liable for invasion of privacy.

   Strict guidelines exist, for example, in regard to employee searches because the business can easily face a lawsuit if they do not take caution.  The employer may simply be investigating a theft or an illegal activity but he must consider his employees’ reasonable expectations of privacy.  According to a worker who legitimately expects, based on the employer’s policies, past practice and common sense, that the employer will not search certain areas has a stronger argument than the employer’s justification for a search.

   The courts generally support a search more readily if the employer, in fact, took steps to lower the expectation of privacy among the workers. A necessary checklist for enacting a workplace search follows: 

  • Have a preexisting search policy

  • Do not conduct random searches

  • Never search an employee’s body

  • Generally off-limit areas include restrooms and changing rooms

  • Consider the workers privacy expectations

  • Do not hold employees against their will

   Other common monitoring techniques in the workplace can be within employees’ e-mail, voicemail, telephone calls and Internet use.  A recent study done by the Society for Human Resource Management found that out of over 700 companies, “more than three quarters monitored their workers” use of the Internet and check employee e-mail and more than half review employee phone calls.”  In a similar study, the American Management Association found that businesses who offer financial services (banks, insurance firms, real estate companies) were “the most likely to monitor their workers’ communications.”

   However laws in monitoring exist in regard to communications as well as searches. For example, in a phone call many states require employers to warn workers of call listening by either an announcement or a signal like a beeping noise. Personal calls exist as an exception to this rule though because the employer must not listen once he realizes the call to be non-work-related, or he must either have guidelines previously set stipulating rules upon those calls.

   As far as Internet use and e-mail messages, companies have various policies on e-mail use but more direct ones when it comes to the Internet. The main cause of this circumstance can be attributed to the danger present online which could potentially have a negative effect on the whole company. Many employers install devices blocking access to certain sites guaranteeing them more protection.

   “At my last job we weren’t allowed to use the phone to make any personal calls and we couldn’t use the Internet at all,” said Laura Lankford of Monticello. “The woman that trained me for the job actually got fired not long after I had been there because she was caught checking her e-mail with a computer at work.”

   Testing employees continues to be popular among employers more so than the other forms of monitoring though.  This method allows the business a greater success rate according to because it usually “predicts a workers actual ability to do the job.”  Employers may monitor through medical examinations, drug tests, psychological screening or lie detector tests.

   “I work at a state job and they do random drug testing there all the time,” said Benjamin Hubbard of Pine Bluff.  “At my second interview for the job they made me take a personality test and a physical exam, they have my medical history on record as well.”

   While the need for monitoring in the workplace may be great, employers must constantly deal with the inevitable repercussions. For instance workers’ morale may drop, legal problems may arise and long-lasting harm may be caused to both the employee and company in the event of a privacy incident. However with the advances in technology, businesses can successfully monitor and improve their workplace productivity by wisely monitoring in conjunction with a predetermined set of rules and regulations.

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The Voice, 2005
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