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Be Careful What You Say and Do at Work

by Ryan Guina

Do you know who is watching and listening to you at work? It’s probably not just the person in the cube next to you. The chances are very good that your employer has the ability to monitor your e-mails, phone calls, instant messages, and internet usage. Our company’s IT department actually has the ability to take control of our computers remotely (I found this out one day when I called our IT department with an issue and the tech took control of my laptop while on the phone with me, made some changes, and returned control of my computer to me).

While it sounds like a breach in privacy, many courts have sided with employers in regard to e-mail and other communication privacy issues. And many companies are using e-mail and instant message monitoring to protect their proprietary information and make sure employees aren’t using their time for non-work related activities.

Companies can monitor your communication

Like it or not, your company probably has the ability to monitor just about everything you do on the web or via phone. Companies monitor many forms of employee communication, often including e-mail, phone calls, voice mails, instant messaging, and internet use. The intent is often to monitor quality control and protect their intellectual property, and the results can lead to a lack of privacy and potential job loss for abuse. Here are some of the forms of communication some companies monitor.

E-mail and instant message. Every e-mail and instant message leaves an electronic trace as it passes through the system. Even if you clear your inbox, trash, and sent folders regularly, there may be a permanent record of your e-mails in the company system. The same goes for instant messages if you company uses those. For the most part your communications probably won’t be monitored unless it is a random check or there is good cause, but you never know.

Phone calls and voice mail. It is easy for IT departments to monitor which phone numbers are called, including frequency and duration of calls. However, it is more difficult to monitor the content because it takes an active listener and there may be state or federal laws involved depending on the type of phone call. Most companies have a written policy which states when and how they might monitor phone calls.

Internet usage. This is probably the biggest area for abuse. Monitoring internet usage is incredibly easy for IT departments. Many companies block “time and bandwidth wasters” automatically, usually sites such as social media sites (FaceBook, MySpace, twitter, forums), bandwidth hogs (YouTube, Pandora, other streaming sites), auction and shopping sites (Ebay, Craigslist, etc.), peer to peer sites, and other file sharing sites. But just because a site isn’t blocked doesn’t mean you should visit it from your work terminal. Depending on company policy, visiting some sites and abusing internet privileges can be grounds for instant dismissal.

Legalities of communication monitoring

I won’t profess to be a lawyer or dispense legal advice. All I can do is say there is a lot of gray area when it comes to monitoring employee communication. Some laws are more clear than others. Here are some articles I found helpful:

Whether you are an employee or employer, it is a good idea to review current communication policies and consult with an attorney if necessary.

Protect yourself

The obvious response would be to tell you not to do anything that could be used against you. But who really knows what that means? Does that mean never visiting CNN news on your lunch break? Or check the weather before your evening commute? The best advice I can give you is to treat all communication as though it is monitored and not to send anything you wouldn’t want your boss to know about.

It is also a good idea to refer to your employee handbook to read about your company’s communication policy. Most large companies and many smaller companies have a policy in place that should remove much confusion (this is to protect both the company and the employee). You can also speak with your HR rep, manager, or someone in the IT department to determine how much power they have and under what circumstances it can be used. In most cases, they will be happy to tell you what they can and cannot do. And the monitoring ability they have just might surprise you.


Published or updated February 8, 2010.
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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kyle C.

The best advice I could give would be to not do anything using work supplied equipment that you wouldn’t want your boss reading, or that you wouldn’t want to have to read in front a of a judge or your mom.

Electronic evidence is discoverable in the event of a lawsuit, if you said something dirty about Jane to your buddy down the way in e-mail and Jane sues the company for harassment her lawyers can subpoena all electronic communication related to Jane. This would include your e-mail, BAM! now you are in deep doody because when they searched e-mails to fulfill their discovery request your e-mail came up. Keep it civil and professional, you never know when it might come back and bite you.

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2 2 Cents @ Balance Junkie

Wow. This is great food for thought. In this new age of fluid, instantaneous communication, we all need to be aware that almost everything we do or say is probably “on the record”. How do we balance Big Brother with accountability? Why does it seem that we have an increasing amount of privacy policies but a decreasing amount of privacy?

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3 Craig

Yea, you never know who is lurking around, so you always have to be careful because you don’t want to risk your job over a silly email.

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4 kenyantykoon

its like that facebook mark guy said, the age of privacy is over. the walls and everything else have ears and eyes. it a little disconcerting particularly for a person like me who is in love with his privacy

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5 Ron

Save yourself some grief and get a smartphone that connects to the web. Pay for it yourself. Don’t use it in front of your boss.

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6 Ron

Also, UN-friend any co-workers from social media you frequently use (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc.). If you have a blog and can figure out your company’s IP address — bock it. Also, check your Feedburner email subscribers and “pause” any of them that appear to be using your company’s email servers.

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7 Money Reasons

I work in the IT Department, and everything you stated above is true. They also can record you keystrokes if they want to, but they usually don’t unless they are watching you trying to detect something.

I’m not in the security IT department, so I’m not involved in this activity, but word travels quickly over the wire.

We can watch your desktop remotely and see everything you do. My company has a flag that tell the users we are monitoring remotely. But this is easy to get around.

I go to the local library to do blogging stuff just because of what you mentioned above!

Big Brother has arrived! And it’s just going to get worse…

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8 Ryan

Scary isn’t it? I don’t think most people are aware at how much power companies have to monitor people’s actions at work.

Good choice blogging from the library! I typically do my work from the library or from home, and never on the company computer (other than a few random e-mails).

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9 Evan

My company (a fortune 500 insurance/investment company) has an entprise server for emails (I think I am using the right jargon). So when you hook up your e-mail to your smart phone, they can (and do!) archive text messages. They say this is to determine whether you are participating in insider trading with your text messages, but who the hell knows!

Once I found out that, I disconnected my phone from their servers and just check my email through the browser a couple times from home on the weekend.

I have too many friends that choose not to censor themselves in their text messages to allow some huge corporation to archive my text messages.

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10 Ryan

wow… I don’t like that at all and I would have done the same thing!

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11 Eric J

@Evan. That is pretty scary stuff. I know that this goes on, however, from past jobs that I’ve worked on. At certain places, they actually had servers that monitored all traffic and blocked certain known leisure sites (Myspace, Youtbue…etc). “They” tried to make it a little easier on us employees by letting night-shift workers get on at certain hours, but I felt that even that was a possible booby-trap, and subsequently stayed away from it altogether. Thanks for sharing.

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