Wednesday, October 06, 1999

Privacy rights are left at home

Work! You're on company camera

Employers have the legal right and -- thanks to e-mail, security cameras, voice-mail and electronic keys -- ability to track your every move and conversation.


   Big Brother is watching -- and it's increasingly likely that the Omniscient One is your boss.

    He might be recording the casual conversations between you and a co-worker, tracking e-mails on your company computer, or watching the goings-on in the staff lounge.

    Sound like an invasion of your privacy? Think again. Most employee monitoring in the workplace is perfectly legal, and it happens more than most people realize.

    ""There's a lot of misunderstanding about it,'' says William Hubbartt, a human resources management consultant in Illinois. ""People think, "I have my rights,' but I found out after doing my research that, unfortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Employee, you don't.''

    Two-thirds of U.S. businesses eavesdrop on their employees in some fashion -- on the phone, via videotape and through e-mail and Internet files -- according to a 1999 survey by the American Management Association International.

    And that number continues to creep upward, for several reasons.

    First, monitoring equipment is increasingly cheaper and more sophisticated. Employers can trace everything from deleted e-mails and voice mails to the exact computer keys a worker strikes. Special software can follow employees' paths across the Internet, and high-tech employee badges even let bosses track their workers' movement within an office building. Wireless video cameras are small enough these days to fit in pagers.

    Second, more workers use technology that lends itself to monitoring: e-mail, the Internet and voice mail.

    ""A good deal of this is done because it can be done, because the technology allows it,'' says Eric Rolfe Greenberg, director of management studies at American Management Association International. ""If, 10 years ago, a CEO had put out a dictate that everything typed [on a typewriter] had to have a carbon and the carbon had to be filed, it would have been unenforceable.''

    Today, it's a cinch to trace computer files and digital recordings.

    ""Employers, for the most part, unless they are voyeurs, don't set out to spy on their employees,'' says Hubbartt, author of ""The New Battle Over Workplace Privacy.'' Most snooping ensues, he suggests, only after an employer gets wind of an employee transgression.

    Businesses have lots of good reasons to monitor workers: to deter workplace crime, to protect business secrets and to make sure, for instance, that employees aren't calling Timbuktu on the company dime.

    Businesses concerned about workplace violence often use video surveillance for security purposes, and those worried about the Internet sites that employees are surfing at work can buy software that watches employees' screens.

    Not monitoring can sometimes cost companies a bunch. After Chevron Corp. employees sent a sexually harassing e-mail through the company system, Chevron was forced to pay four plaintiffs $2.2 million. Had the company been monitoring employees' e-mail, it might have caught the problem before it went to court.

    The biggest problem with monitoring is, ""It can go overboard,'' says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. ""There are virtually no laws to protect employees from the excesses of monitoring.''

    Givens and other critics of workplace monitoring say that abuses of power run rampant, from employers videotaping workers in lavatories and locker rooms to businesses that hire investigators to follow workers home.

    Only one federal law addresses workplace privacy. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act forbids employers to eavesdrop on phone conversations and e-mail after it becomes clear that the content is personal, says Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of ""Privacy Journal.'' Only one state, Michigan, prohibits secret videotaping of employees.

    On Aug. 31, the California Legislature became the first in the nation to pass a workplace monitoring bill, prohibiting employers from secretly monitoring employee e-mail and computer records. The measure awaits the governor's signature.

    ""What happens is, technology increases and the law does not keep up,'' says Harriette Topitzes, the chief union steward for airline reservationists at Trans World Airlines. That group unionized in 1992, primarily as a way to protect members against unreasonable monitoring. Now, the company must give a telephone reservationist five days' notice before monitoring her calls.

    Spying on employees goes back to Henry Ford at the turn of the century. The automobile magnate employed ""a bunch of goons,'' says Smith, who tracked the off-hours behavior of Ford's assembly line workers. Drunkenness and adultery were grounds for firing.

    Modern workplace privacy concerns arose with the advent of electronic devices.

    ""What happened in the mid- to late-'80s is that technology became available, really to any size employer,'' says Cindia Cameron, organizing director for 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women. ""It crossed the line to monitoring people instead of productivity.''

    Today's technologies allow ""near ubiquitous monitoring'' if an employer so chooses, Givens says. But there's a downside to that.

    A 1990 University of Wisconsin study showed that monitored workers have significantly higher rates of severe fatigue and depression than nonmonitored workers.

    And probably a more adversarial relationship with management, Givens says.

    ""I can't think of a better way to create low morale than a ubiquitous monitoring situation,'' she says. ""If you're being monitored every hour of the day, there's really not a shred of dignity you can take from your work situation.''

    Most employers expect that workers will make the occasional personal phone call or send a nonbusiness e-mail. But employees ought to be fully aware of the ground rules, Hubbartt says.

    ""The key for the employer is, No. 1, to have a legitimate reason for [monitoring], and define a policy in terms of what they intend to do,'' he says. ""Then communicate that policy to everyone, which minimizes the privacy expectation.

    ""If you don't expect it,'' Hubbartt adds, ""then you're not as upset not to have it.''

Last updated 99/10/06
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