Ever wonder what your employees are really up to while they’re on the clock?  You’re certainly not alone.  Many companies place restrictions on employee activities.  According to a recent survey, 40% of companies have a formal social media policy and monitor social media activities on company-owned equipment.  Another survey showed that 76% of companies have rules regarding email use and content, and half reported that they regularly monitor workers’ incoming/outgoing emails.  Is it legal and ethical to monitor what employees are doing with their company-issued devices?

The short answer is yes, restricting and monitoring employee activity is legal.  Though unionized and public employers may be held to different standards, most companies can track employee use of company-owned computers, desk phones, tablets, and smart phones.  Restrictions may be placed on web browsing, phone calls, and communication by email or text message, and employees should have no expectation of privacy while using work-issued equipment. 

There are several reasons an employer may wish to monitor their employees at work, the most obvious being productivity.  In a recent survey, most employees admitted spending at least one hour each work day on personal activities, while a few responders claimed to spend three hours each work day checking social media, shopping online, and even job hunting.  These activities can cost employers time and money.  Workplace monitoring can also help a company protect its reputation, avoid inadvertent sharing of information with competitors, and prevent personal harassment between employees.

If your company chooses to monitor employee use of company-issued devices, there are several tools at your disposal.  A pen register can provide an employer with a list of numbers dialed and the length of calls for every desktop phone.   A keylogger can record everything that occurs on company computers, tablets, and smartphones, and provide reports about suspicious activity.  Brands like Mobile Spy© and SpectorSoft© have products that silently record text messages, emails, call logs, website visits, and photos. ContentProtect©, Websense©, and Blue Coat Systems© can be installed to block or track websites.  Employers can also monitor social media use in the workplace using SocialLogix©, Actiance©, and Socialware©.

There are potential pitfalls to monitoring employee activity.  It can create an environment of fear or mistrust, causing a morale problem and potentially harming employee productivity.  Monitoring can also give a company inadvertent access to personal correspondence pertaining to an employee’s religion, sexual orientation, medical history, and other protected information.

Though only Delaware and Connecticut require employers to notify employees of electronic monitoring, transparency is the best policy.  The safest course of action is to forbid employees from using company-issued devices for any personal activities.  If you choose to allow employees to use these devices for non-work purposes, you should develop a clear, comprehensive policy about what is and is not permissible.  If company-issued equipment is to be monitored, employees should be informed in writing of the scope and type of monitoring.  Policies such as these should be contained in an employee handbook which each employee reads and consents to in writing.

If you have any questions about monitoring employees or other employment issues, we would be glad to help you. The attorneys of Gibbes Burton are passionate about helping professionals and businesses to minimize risk and build success.

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