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A Guide to Effective Employee Monitoring

From wiretapping to keylogging, traditional employee monitoring can be invasive and morale-crushing. But by monitoring the way employees prefer to communicate (be it location, device, or frequency), companies can reach them on their turf and foster higher productivity in a respectful way.

Written by

Henrik Jesman Sunde

March 20, 2022

Though the significant jump in remote working in the last couple of years has led more employers to figure out how to keep closer tabs, employee monitoring is far from new. In a 2018 Gartner report, 50% of the 239 surveyed corporations said they were using some type of monitoring technique, and the percentage has only risen. 

While more and more employers are looking for employee monitoring options, employees are split on their level of comfort with being monitored. It’s understandable, considering not all employee monitoring tools are created equally. While some methods feel reasonable, others feel invasive and unsettling for employees. So what’s the right balance, and how can employers effectively monitor employees without crossing a line?

What Is Employee Monitoring?

First, let’s go over what qualifies as employee monitoring, or as it’s sometimes called, “corporate surveillance.” Employee monitoring is the practice by which companies use digital tools to track employees’ performance, productivity, and correspondence. The goals of employee monitoring tend to fall under the categories of verifying attendance, ensuring productivity, enhancing security, and assessing behavior. This can range from monitoring as mild as observing company emails to more extreme methods, such as accessing employee webcams. This raises the question: How far is too far? To answer that, let’s begin by looking at the legality of employee monitoring.

Is It Legal to Monitor Employees?

Generally, employers have the right to monitor their employees during work hours, though laws vary by state. When it comes to federal law, most methods of employee monitoring are acceptable as long as the monitoring is done in work areas. In more private and personal areas, however, employers’ rights are more limited, such as in eating spaces or bathrooms where employees have personal conversations or handle personal matters. Above all, employee monitoring is not allowed in private spaces, like locker rooms or bathroom stalls.

States vary in handling employee monitoring, particularly about whether employees know they’re being monitored and consent to it, as well as how the monitoring happens, be it over email, audio recording, video recording, etc. 

What is restricted across the board is targeting certain groups of employees. For instance, employers can be subjected to legal action if found to single out employees on the basis of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or otherwise for monitoring. Before a company resorts to any surveillance practices or employee monitoring software, it’s recommended to get reputable legal advice so no laws are broken or lines crossed.

Types of Employee Monitoring

Again, employee monitoring practices vary on the spectrum. Some are comparatively mild and generally accepted by employees, while others can be extreme and hurt employee morale and trust. Here are some of the most common types of employee monitoring.

Internet & App Usage

This type of monitoring includes tracking which URLs and apps employees visit while at work. For instance, you can see when someone is shopping on Amazon instead of focusing on a report that’s due. What can be tricky with this, however, is that some roles require visiting sites and apps that don’t traditionally look appropriate for work. Researchers may need to browse sites with content that appears unrelated to work, and social media managers need to access social media applications.

Screen Capturing

By enabling screen capturing tools on employee devices, employers can get snapshots of what employees are looking at and working on. Again, it can be helpful to see if employees are spending time on sites unrelated to their work.

Video Surveillance

Some employers enlist employee monitoring software that allows them to take random web camera images and videos of employees, or tools that keep their webcam on while the employee works. Understandably, this is a method employees tend to consider a serious privacy concern.

Time and File Tracking

Time-tracking tools require employees to digitally clock in and out so employers can monitor attendance and hours worked. Time-tracking can also be used to log how long employees spend on specific work tasks. File tracking involves monitoring which employees access and edit files, when they do it, and how. Printer use can also be tracked.

Keylogging

Keylogging tools record each keystroke made on a computer. While employers use this method to assess productivity, it does pose a security risk. For instance, keylogging can make individuals and companies vulnerable to having passwords and other sensitive information hacked.

Location Tracking

With more employees working remotely, location tracking has become more common. This can look like tracking employees using company vehicles, tracking mobile phones, or other devices to determine where employees are and where they’ve been. 

Email, Phones, and Internal Messaging Apps

Email monitoring is highly common among employers. Call monitoring is also common, particularly among customer service and sales representatives. Both help to determine how employees are interacting with one another, with customers and clients, and with others outside the company. Many companies today also have some sort of internal messaging app like Slack or Google Chat that employers are able to monitor. This can help employers settle disputes and prevent mishandling of sensitive information.

CCTV and Webcams

Closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras have long been popular ways to monitor workspaces, not just to keep an eye on what employees are doing, but to monitor anyone that comes in or near the workplace. As long as cameras aren’t placed in private places, this type of employee monitoring tool is generally accepted by employees. More invasive options like the webcam monitoring and capturing described above are commonly seen as too extreme.

The Pros and Cons of Employee Monitoring

Despite concern, employers do notice that employee monitoring can have measurable benefits. Some of the more common pros to employee monitoring include:

  • Increased Security: Monitoring internal communication can prevent mishandling of sensitive information, as well as help managers put an end to employee harassment and bullying in the workplace. 
  • Better Productivity: Naturally, if employees know or sense they’re being monitored, they’ll cut down on time wasters. 

Project Tracking: With employee monitoring tools like time trackers, employers can get a more data-backed feel for which projects are being worked on and how much time is being invested by which employees.

However, there are certainly cons to employee monitoring, some with serious consequences. Common negatives include:

  • Lower Employee Morale: No one likes being watched or mistrusted. People want freedom and flexibility. 
  • High Turnover: Workplaces with tension around employee monitoring will likely experience frequent resignations. 

Legal Trouble: If certain employees feel targeted on unfair grounds, employers could face a lawsuit. The same goes for employees who feel that monitoring has crossed a line into violating their privacy.

Effective Employee Monitoring

So how can employers monitor workers effectively and respectfully? Here are some considerations to keep in mind when creating an employee monitoring plan. 

Be Transparent With Employees

In most cases, monitoring employees without their consent will do far more harm than good. Even the most productive and professional employees likely don't feel fully comfortable about having their every move tracked. And if you engage in employee monitoring without your workers even being aware and they happen to find out, you’ve broken trust that will be hard to reestablish, resulting in a tense workplace.

Try to Be Democratic

Just the term “employee monitoring” can rattle employees and create division between them and management. To curb that as much as possible, bring your employees into the decision-making process where you can. Be clear about what you want to monitor and why, ask for ideas, and give them choices. Remember, they’re adult professionals. Seeing them as subordinates doesn’t create a healthy workplace for anyone. Be empathetic to their needs and treat them how you would want to be treated if the tables were reversed. 

Communicate About Tracking

Not only should you inform employees that they’re being tracked once you pick a method, you should also give them insight into how, where, and when. Again, there needs to be trust. Without it, you draw a thick line between employees and managers, and morale takes a huge dive. Before beginning any kind of monitoring, gather employees to go over the following:

  • Why you’re going to start monitoring 
  • When it will happen and for how long
  • What you are monitoring, such as systems, applications, hardware, etc.
  • Who will be responsible for monitoring and have access to data gathered
  • How data will be used, stored, and managed

You want employees to feel familiar with the employee tracking tool or tools monitoring them, how they work, and what employees can expect.

Write a Policy and Get Employee Signoff

Put your employee monitoring plan on paper in clear language. Be straightforward about your motivations for employee monitoring and how it will be used. Add any relevant legal provisions. Have employees sign it, making the process feel more democratic and trustworthy. 

Be Open to Feedback

Make it clear to employees that your policies aren’t intended to be tyrannical. Assure them your door is open for any concerns, questions, criticism, or other feedback about how or why they’re being monitored. Encouraging employees to be collaborative with you will continue to help build trust.

Assess Your Methods

After a month or two of using an employee tracking tool, see what kind of data you’re gathering from it and whether or not it's fulfilling your goal or providing any value. If it’s not, why continue to monitor employees in that manner? If a tool isn’t offering what you need, keeping it just risks creating an environment of unwarranted surveillance. If you do get valuable insights from your monitoring methods, utilize them and communicate them with employees where appropriate.

Getting Help From Employee Monitoring Software

Not all employee monitoring is disruptive or deceptive. There are many methods that greatly improve workplaces without lowering morale or disrespecting workers. Zelo’s employee monitoring software helps companies reach their entire organization across the channels employees actually prefer. Our tool gives employers insight into which browsers and devices employees use, which internal communications are opened, and more so you can better understand employee activity and behavior. 

Learn more about Zelo’s product features to see if it would be a match for your company’s employee monitoring needs. 

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