Monitoring Employees on Networks: Unethical or Good Business?

The Internet has become an extremely valuable business tool, but it’s also a huge distraction for workers on the job. Employees are wasting valuable company time by surfing inappropriate websites (Facebook, shopping, sports, etc.), sending and re­ceiving personal email, texting to friends, and down­loading videos and music. According to a survey by International Data Corp (IDC), 30 to 40 percent of Internet access is spent on non-work-related brows­ing, and a staggering 60 percent of all online pur­chases are made during working hours.

Many companies have begun monitoring employee use of email and the Internet, sometimes without their knowledge. Many tools are now available for this pur­pose, including Veriato Investigator, OsMonitor, Work Examiner, Mobistealth, and Spytech. These products enable companies to record online searches, monitor file downloads and uploads, record keystrokes, keep tabs on emails, create transcripts of chats, or take certain screenshots of images displayed on computer screens. Instant messaging, text messaging, and social media monitoring are also increasing. Microsoft offers software called MyAnalytics, which assembles data from emails, calendars, and other sources to show em­ployees how they spend their time, how often they are in touch with key contacts, and whether they multi­task too much. It also aggregates the data for managers to see how their teams are doing.

Although U.S. companies have the legal right to monitor employee Internet and email activity while they are at work, is such monitoring unethical, or is it simply good business?

Managers worry about the loss of time and em­ployee productivity when employees are focusing on personal rather than company business. Tao much time on personal business translates into lost reve­nue. Some employees may even be billing time they spend pursuing personal interests online to clients, thus overcharging them.

If personal traffic on company networks is too high, it can also clog the company’s network so that legitimate business work cannot be performed. GMI Insurance Services, which serves the U.S. transporta­tion industry, found that employees were download­ing a great deal of music and streaming video and storing the files on company servers. GMI’s server backup space was being eaten up.

When employees use email or the web (includ­ing social networks) at employer facilities or with employer equipment, anything they do, includ­ing anything illegal, carries the company’s name. Therefore, the employer can be traced and held lia­ble. Management in many firms fear that racist, sexu­ally explicit, or other potentially offensive material accessed or traded by their employees could result in adverse publicity and even lawsuits for the firm. Even if the company is found not to be liable, responding to lawsuits could run up huge legal bills. Companies also fear leakage of confidential information and trade secrets through email or social networks. U.S. companies have the legal right to monitor what em­ployees are doing with company equipment during business hours. The question is whether electronic surveillance is an appropriate tool for maintaining an efficient and positive workplace. Some companies try to ban all personal activities on corporate networks— zero tolerance. Others block employee access to spe­cific websites or social sites, closely monitor email messages, or limit personal time on the web.

IT Authorities, a Tampa, Florida-based infrastruc­ture management and support organization, is using Veriato 360 employee monitoring software to help improve employee productivity. The company im­plemented the software in 2016 to reduce what it be­lieved to be “inefficient activities.” According to CEO Jason Caras, knowing that managers can see whether employees are working and exactly how they are working is a huge deterrent to wasteful activity. For IT Authorities specifically, Veriato 360 tracks and records the websites employees are visiting, what documents they are transmitting (and how), what they are sending (and to whom) in email and instant messaging, and even how long they might have been away from their computers at any given time. With Veriato 360, companies such as IT Authorities are able to identify “normal” patterns of activity for an individual’s job, as well as any anomalies, so they can quickly address any potential productivity loss before it costs their company thousands or even mil­lions of dollars in lost work.

A Proofpoint survey found that one in five large U.S. companies had fired an employee for violating email policies. Among managers who fired employ­ees for Internet misuse, the majority did so because the employees’ email contained sensitive, confiden­tial, or embarrassing information.

No solution is problem-free, but many consultants believe companies should write corporate policies on employee email, social media, and Internet use. Many workers are unaware that employers have the right to monitor and collect data about them. The policies should include explicit ground rules that state, by posi­tion or level, under what circumstances employees can use company facilities for email, blogging, or web surf­ing. The policies should also inform employees whether these activities are monitored and explain why.

The rules should be tailored to specific business needs and organizational cultures. For example, investment firms will need to allow many of their employees access to other investment sites. A com­pany dependent on widespread information shar­ing, innovation, and independence could very well find that monitoring creates more problems than it solves.

Source: Laudon Kenneth C., Laudon Jane Price (2020), Management Information Systems: Managing the Digital Firm, Pearson; 16th edition.

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