Monitoring Employees in an Age of IM, Email, and Social Networking

Supervisors everywhere know the frustration of strolling past an employee’s work station, only to find them texting furiously instead of doing what they’re being paid to do. Increasingly, employers are taking steps to cut down on employees’ extracurricular digital communication—whether its instant messaging (IMing), web surfing, texting or making personal phone calls on company time.

Some consider it an invasion of privacy, but the law is solidly on the employer’s side. Employers are allowed to monitor employee communications, and most communication equipment is the property of the business—so its use is dictated by business needs, not staff’s need to keep up with their friends’ latest activities.

Three forces are at work in employee monitoring: first, employers are ever-vigilant about squeezing every ounce of productivity out of workers. If an employee is not giving 100% to his or her employer, there are probably others who will be happy to take over that position. Second, risk-averse employers know that keeping workplaces completely litigation free is an elusive goal—but one that can come closer to happening with the right monitoring practices. Keeping all staff safe from harassment is easier if you know what types of emails and IMs are flying around the company. Third, it’s more important than ever to keep company information and trade secrets confidential. Too many firms have been taken down by loyalty-lacking employees. It’s way too easy to forward a company-only email to the press or a blogger who will quickly spread the information throughout the industry.

Monitoring software is easily found online or at electronics retailers. Depending on the package features, keystroke monitoring, website tracking, and even webcams capture employees’ activities.

Data from 2007 shows that 2/3 of employers check up on employees’ Internet use. From tracking time spent and websites visited, to keystroke monitoring to capture search terms, employers can get a full picture of which employees are using company equipment for work use and for personal use. And a 2009 survey shows that nearly 90% of employees used office networks to send jokes, rumor, or gossip to outside recipients. 14% have sent confidential company emails to third parties.

So far, the courts have ruled that employees have no expectation for privacy when using employer-provided computer systems, cell phones, and pagers. Even employees who send personal emails through a private account are using company servers—and so have no right to expect those emails will not be monitored.

Employers’ best practices are communicating the need for monitoring, and to put a clear policy in place, so workers know exactly what is and what is not allowed—and the consequences for breaking the rules.

The best pre-employment screening process includes employee background checks, employee credit checks, and criminal background checks. You’ll know you’re hiring safe when you screen employees before offering a position.

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