Seventh Annual International Symposium on Digital Ethics →

Big Brother in the Workplace

  • AuthorMarc Davis
  • Published Monday, December 30th, 2013
  • Comments1

Has the American workplace become an Orwellian fishbowl where Big Brother bosses watch our every move?  So it seems.

Employer surveillance of employees has become rampant at many of America’s top corporations and at smaller firms all the way down the ladder to the so-called mom-and-pop shops.

Snooping bosses can see your emails, outgoing and incoming. They can read their content, see the names and email addresses of who you’ve emailed, and who has emailed you.

Nosy bosses can also access software that captures every keystroke made on a computer keyboard to determine what a worker is writing. 

Your employer can also monitor computers to track website visits to see if an employee is frittering away valuable time playing games, watching porn, searching for another job, or browsing Facebook or You Tube, Twitter or other social media.

Beyond keeping tabs on worker Internet activity, employers have placed bugs in cubicles and in some cases on phones. Or an eye-in-the-sky camera may be silently observing worker conduct through the day.

Surveillance and spy ware technology keeps improving. It’s readily available and relatively inexpensive, which accounts, in part, for its growing use in the workplace.

Employers who monitor their personnel claim it increases productivity and safety and reduces theft. They also argue that it protects proprietary information and various company secrets and is an invaluable tool for investigating workplace harassment and discrimination.

Blue-collar workers are also monitored. There may be a video camera in the break room, and a GPS tracking device on company trucks. Assembly line or factory workers may be observed through video cameras.

Laws governing the taping of phone conversations differ from state to state — some states require the consent of both parties to a conversation to give approval before the exchange may be taped or monitored.

Some states permit employees to sue for invasion of privacy, intrusion on seclusion and other violations of privacy protection. But if employees sign waivers or employment contracts that grant the employer certain surveillance permissions, there may not be legal remedy for the workers.

If an employer issues an employee handbook, areas and devices that are monitored may be indicated. Frequently, workers may also be asked to sign a waiver or similar document, granting spying rights to an employer and acknowledging that they’re aware they’re being watched.

Employees who know they’re being watched may be exemplars of good on-the-job behavior. But employees aware that they’re being spied on increases their stress levels, resentment and anger, and generally lowers workplace morale, according to a report dated September 29, 2013, from AOL.

Is such surveillance of workers legal?  For the most part, yes.

Is it ethical? From my perspective, sneak peeking at workers is an ethical breach. But proponents of employee monitoring insist that it’s necessary. Others hold that the act of spying inhabits an ethical no man’s land.

Do spied-upon employees have legal remedy? In most cases, no.

Although there is only a small body of case law on worker privacy and no federal government regulations, as yet, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has an email privacy case on its docket concerning email messages sent back and forth between a husband and wife. Still, without statutory protection, workers, when on the job, have little or no right to privacy.

Some progress is being made, however, toward protecting the social network privacy of employees and job applicants. In January of this year (2013) Illinois became the nation’s third state to enact a law prohibiting employers from obtaining usernames and passwords of people using social networks.

But workers may not even be safe from employer snooping beyond the workplace. The employee handbook may spell out the circumstances by which an employee may be watched, and on what devices, when not working.

In some instances employers may look at a worker’s medical records and or doctors’ notes. A worker’s specific medical diagnoses may not be disclosed. But when an employee files a workman’s compensation claim, or asks for a medical or family leave, or claims a disability, the employer may be legally permitted to request medical records.

Numerous cases of egregious spying on employees and its consequences both for the spy and the spied-upon have been reported in the media.

For example, the CEO of a publishing firm fired several employees who posted negative comments about the company on their Facebook pages. Obviously, workers’ Facebook pages were being monitored.

In another case of alleged employer “spying,” Harvard was accused of an illegal look at faculty computer records to determine how an important document was leaked, and who was the leaker. The rules permit system administrators to access the records for maintenance purposes, to prevent damage and to ensure compliance with university rules. Some Harvard partisans said the alleged peek at the faculty computer records was “reasonable.”  

In Seattle several years ago, Boeing Co. was accused of secretly monitoring employees to protect its proprietary information, according to a November 18, 2007 report from Aero-News Network, an online publication reporting news of the aerospace industry.

Hewlett-Packard was fined $14.5 million some years ago for investigating leaks from its board of directors by allegedly secretly monitoring their emails and instant messaging, that was also reported on the article cited above by the Aero-News Network.

A Google search revealed many additional instances of employers violating worker privacy.

The solution to this situation may now be making its way through the U.S. House of Representatives in the form of a privacy protection bill. If enacted, the bill would provide some degree of protection to employees by restricting employer monitoring.

Privacy advocates are also working against excessive spying in the workplace including the not-for-profit Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

According to their web site, EPIC is a public interest research center in Washington, D.C., established in 1994 to focus public attention on emerging civil liberties issues and to protect privacy, the First Amendment and constitutional values.

How will it end?

As employer spying and the war against it continues, technology now also exists to monitor regions of the brain connected to pleasure, hunger, the flight-or-fight phenomenon and other states of mind. So the capability to read a person’s thoughts, in a general sense, is now also available. Will the labor force of the future be wired to a device that monitors their most secret thoughts? Let’s hope not.

But who watches the watchers?

In light of all the illegal misdeeds of so many corporations of late, perhaps the employees should be monitoring their employers, rather than vice versa.

Marc Davis has been an independent journalist for more than twenty years. His reporting-writing has been published by Advertising Age, AOL, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes Investopedia Online, The Journal of the American Bar Association, Encyclopedia Britannica, The John Marshall Law School Magazine, and numerous other national print and online media. He is also a published novelist and the author of several children’s books. His latest novel, Bottom Line, was published in June, 2013, by The Permanent Press, N.Y.

One Response to “Big Brother in the Workplace”

  1. Connor Doyle says:

    Monitoring of employees in the workplace is extremely
    unethical, and should be limited by law. In my opinion, it is acceptable for
    companies to block certain sites, such as pornography or other offensive
    website. Sites with explicit material are inappropriate in a work setting.
    Employees shouldn’t be looking at sites of an inappropriate nature and
    companies should block this type of content. But the monitoring of employee
    emails, online activity and phone messages is unacceptable. How can any
    employee feel comfortable at work if they are worried that a superior may be
    looking through personal emails at any time? The author even mentioned that
    bugs are placed in certain areas of the workplace to monitor conversations.
    These are outrageous practices that should not be allowed. No person in the workplace
    can feel comfortable if they have to worry about being eavesdropped on or
    constantly monitored. Companies do inform employees of the monitoring taking
    place, but this practice should be completely outlawed. Allowing companies to
    block certain websites is a fair compromise, but the workplace should not be
    like a Communist country where people are being monitored constantly. It’s
    understandable that companies want to ensure that employees are productive, but
    violating privacy is a sure way to irritate employees. I wouldn’t work hard for
    a boss who was monitoring me. In fact, I wouldn’t work for them at all. The
    work environment should be a comfortable place. Happy employees will be
    motivated to work hard, so the monitoring of their every move is unnecessary
    and harmful to the overall work environment.

Leave a Reply