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How to Practice Ethical Employee Monitoring

October 28, 2021 Employee Experience
scott clark
By Scott Clark

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea of using employee monitoring software to keep a digital eye on workers was a hotly debated topic. Now, with a large number of employees still working remotely, there are many who feel the idea has some merit.

Many managers and leaders worry about employee productivity in the remote and distributed workplace. Does that mean remote employees should be monitored, or is it a violation of their privacy? And are there alternatives to intrusive surveillance? 

Not all companies feel the need to monitor employees, and even for those that do monitor, the question is whether it is worth the negative repercussions that come with doing so. Business leaders remain divided on the ethics of employee monitoring.

To Monitor or Not to Monitor?

Rhiannon Staples, chief marketing officer at Hibob, an HRIS and people management leader, said that, aside from surveillance for legal or compliance reasons, using it as a way to monitor productivity is flawed, and can be counterproductive and harm organizational culture. The result is a culture of distrust.

“More and more companies are focusing on transparency and empowerment as core values within their workplace culture,” Staples said. “The idea of monitoring seems to really destroy the cultural aspects that many employers want to emphasize. Companies might think surveillance helps managers make sure their team is on task while solving productivity issues. What they’re really doing is eliminating the trust between employees and the company."

That effort can harm employee morale, she said, and negatively affect employee retention. Employee surveillance makes employees feel that a company doesn’t trust them and can breed resentment. For those reasons, companies should really reconsider employee monitoring, said Avner Brodsky, CEO and co-founder at Superwatches.

“Throughout history, we have had to rely on trusted employees to do the work and do it right, so when employees are monitored they tend to feel like they can't be trusted and therefore may not deliver optimal results,” Brodsky said.

When Is It OK to Monitor Employees?

Alex Moss, founder and CEO of Brisbane, Australia-based software company Tactical Arbitrage, said employee monitoring is controversial but it's something remote employees should expect.

"I personally believe that employees should be able to log in when they’re working so that employers are aware of the employees on board during work hours," he said. "For that very reason, it is important to ethically monitor them and their work — not only because it is easier to get distracted during work hours from home but also because they would otherwise be monitored at their workplaces as well, had they not been working remotely. After the employee logs out for the day, their surveillance should be rightfully cut off, ensuring that no privacy is violated.”

Related Article: Why Employee Surveillance Software Could Do More Damage Than It's Worth

Ethical Surveillance Is Transparent

One of the most unethical ways companies practice monitoring is to surveil employees without their knowledge. This can lead to distrust, emotional distress and lower employee retention levels. It can also result in legal problems. Surveillance must be transparent to be ethical, and employees should be aware of what is being watched and what is expected of them. 

“Transparency is important for ethical and performance reasons," said Ariane Ollier Malaterre, management professor and director of the International Network on Technology, Work and Family at Montreal's ESG UQAM. "Transparency makes it more likely that employees react positively to surveillance because they feel treated as adults and with respect, and this may compensate the negative assumption underlying surveillance, i.e., that employees can’t be trusted.”

A monitoring policy that includes consent forms will provide transparency while ensuring that employees are aware of what will be monitored, when they will be monitored, what data will be collected, how it will be used, and how it will be stored. Employees that are monitored should only be monitored during working hours, and if laptop activity will be monitored employees should not be monitored during break periods, unless personal activity is prohibited on the laptop. 

If companies collect screenshots, they should be limited to business software, employee intranet or other business-related material. Don't collect personal browsing details due to the chance that personal information such as social media, medical and financial details could end up in employers' hands. 

Webcams and Employee Privacy

Webcams are another area of lively debate. Webcam monitoring is extremely invasive and a violation of privacy, but many companies are doing just that. Software such as Sneek takes pictures using the employee’s own webcam, sending pictures to the cloud that managers can view as often as every minute. InterGuard takes pictures as often as every five seconds if bosses want to take a look at what employees are doing at all times.

Although the practice is legal when disclosed, webcam monitoring can lower employee engagement and reduce productivity. It might not actually be useful for improving remote work productivity anyway. 

Whatever the methodology, if a company chooses to engage in employee monitoring the policy must state who will be monitored. To be fair, it should also apply to all employees, not just junior-level employees. This ensures all employees receive equal, nondiscriminatory treatment.

A transparent monitoring policy clearly explains what data is collected and for what purpose, how it will be stored, and what third parties it may be shared with, said Malaterre.

"Another important step on the ethical level is to ask for employees’ consent, although it may not be realistic for an employee worried about losing their job to deny consent," he said.

And as with any policy, it is important to examine how managers implement and use the policy in the organization. "For instance, train managers so they can answer employees’ questions, and do not make biased performance assessments because of the data they receive,” said Malaterre.

Related Article: It's Time to Take Another Look at Employee Monitoring

Alternatives to Employee Monitoring

There are alternatives to monitoring that do not carry as many of the negative consequences of a heavy-handed surveillance program.

“Instead of monitoring employees, a company can consider weekly reports from their employees that outline the work they have completed that week,” said Brodsky. “Having an open line of communication is the first step in ensuring your employees are delivering on their work and can help you understand what they believe works best for them.”

Ethical monitoring is possible but it's dependent on agreement and understanding with employees, Brodsky said. For example, providing employees with a company email address creates both an implicit and explicit understanding that employees should only use the company email address for company business. 

“By having a company email, you make it clear to your employee that it is to only be used for work purposes and therefore they shouldn’t mind if it is, at times, monitored,” he said.

There are other aspects of business employees should be aware are strictly reserved for business matters, and that use of business technology should be expected to be monitored. “Monitoring activity when they are on the company server is also an ethical way to keep track of your employees' activities, as it is your right to know what is being done on your business's server,” Brodsky said.

Monitor Ouput, Not Activity

Ian Sells, co-founder and CEO of San Diego-based RebateKey, said businesses should monitor work output rather than rely on employee surveillance and monitoring. Internal surveys at his company showed that time trackers and logs created employee anxiety, so they turned to project management tools instead.

“Aside from weekly and monthly reports, we use timelines and deadlines to ensure that workflows are done within the projected timeframe," he said. "Our team uses project management software that makes it easy to see how each worker is doing and how much they have accomplished.” 

The decision to monitor employees is an ethical dilemma for many companies. If a company makes the decision to do it, monitoring should be transparent and employees that are being monitored should be aware of and agree to it. Companies should also consider alternatives to surveillance and rely instead on employee output measures rather than tracking every employee action.

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