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. Too 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.
Sources: “Technology Is Making It Possible for Employers to Monitor More Work Activity than Ever,” Economist, April 3, 2018; www.privacyrights.org, accessed April 5, 2018; “Electronic Surveillance of Employees,” www.thebalance.com, accessed April 5, 2018; “Office Slacker Stats,” www.staffmonitoring.com, accessed May 3, 2017; “How Do Employers Monitor Internet Usage at Work?” wisegeek.org, accessed April 15, 2017; and Veriato,“Veriato 360 Helps IT Authorities Quickly Increase Employee Productivity,” March 15, 2017.
Please answer the following questions for the case study.
Case Study Questions
1.Should managers monitor employee email and Internet usage? Why or why not?
2.Describe an effective email and web use policy for a company.
3.Should managers inform employees that their web behavior is being monitored? Or should managers monitor secretly? Why or why not?

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