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:
- Email Monitoring: Can Your Employer Read Your Messages?
- Workplace Privacy and Employee Monitoring.
- Monitoring Employee Communications.
Whether you are an employee or employer, it is a good idea to review current communication policies and consult with an attorney if necessary.
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.