Clear policies to balance workplace monitoring

More companies expected to monitor employees' behavior in and out of work, but clearly defined policies and parameters need to be established to prevent privacy intrusions, urge watchers.
Written by Ellyne Phneah, Contributor on

Employee monitoring in the workplace should be expected but the lack of laws and legislation mean workers' privacy is at risk. As such, there should be clear, written policies to identify the parameters of monitoring by employers to prevent intruding into people's private affairs, observers suggest.

Tena Friery, research director at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, said employees at the workplace and using the company's equipment can expect a certain degree of monitoring through e-mails, telephone calls, computers, Internet access, and video monitoring.

She said that the lines between one's professional and private life have blurred as employers seem to want to go beyond what is stated on workers' resumes. For instance, business owners concerned about rising health costs might look into their employees' off-duty activities for "risky" behavior such as smoking and drinking as these activities may lead to higher healthcare premiums, she explained.

The research director also pointed out that employers are now monitoring social networking sites, and there are commercial companies that specialize in screening and gathering information from these online platforms.

There's nothing to stop companies from sacking employees from the information they gathered from monitoring too, noted Friery. Most countries follow the "employment at will" principle that allows free rein in their hiring and firing policies unless there is a law that clearly prohibits certain practices such as discrimination laws, she elaborated.

This is the case in Singapore, where there are no laws to regulate how an employer is allowed to monitor its employee or explicitly recognize an employee's right to privacy, noted Cheah Yew Kuin, senior associate at law firm Baker & McKenzie.Wong & Leow.

He did qualify his observation when he added that legal ramifications may still happen if employers' engage in "questionable" methods of monitoring their workers. Some examples of these include if the company uses its in-house computer systems to access private information stored on an employee's workstation, or intentionally intercepting private communications the employee had sent out.

These actions might leave companies liable to being sued under the Computer Misuse Act, the lawyer stated.

Rhoda Wong, a public relations executive, told ZDNet Asia that a company asking for passwords to her social media accounts is "uncomfortable". "Social media accounts contain details of my personal life and I will not allow anything that invades the privacy," she said.

Civil servant Lin Surong also noted that if digital monitoring crosses over into her personal life, she will be "horrified and disgusted" at the company's "unscrupulous" methods.

Their comments come on the heels of a Gartner report released last month that showed companies monitoring employee behavior in digital environments are on the rise, enabled by new technology and services. It predicted that 60 percent of corporations globally are expected to implement formal programs to monitor employees' behavior on their social media accounts to safeguard against security breaches by 2015.

Have defined monitoring parameters
To ensure employees' privacy are protected, companies should have clear written policies regarding the level of monitoring their staff can expect to be under, Friery advised. These policies should be reviewed by the company's human resources and legal staff for fairness, business necessity, and compliance with labor laws and union contracts, she added.

The research director pointed out that no one should be expected to "give up all privacy in return for a paycheck", and things that do not impact an employer's cost, reputation or productivity should be off-limits to public scrutiny.

Cheah added that some form of authorization should be obtained by the company before monitoring their workers' activities on their workstations.

The policy should set out the organization's rules on the private use of workstations during office hours and, more generally, rules on the personal use of social media when the organization is involved, he said. The latter set of rules would deal with specific online conduct that is sensitive to the company, and how it wants employees to behave in such situations, he added.

"By providing and communicating such reasons, an employer is likely to be able to make monitoring more acceptable to its employees," he said.

Friery also called for a dispute resolution procedure to be introduced so that employees can be heard when they feel an instance of monitoring is "particularly intrusive".

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