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Workplace privacy
After a recent survey conducted by the American Management Association and the e-Policy Institute, it is quite clear that many large businesses are monitoring employees—to some extent—both online and onsite. This survey found that:

  • 66 percent of employers monitor Internet connections of employees
  • 65 percent of employers restrict access to certain websites, such as social networks or those sites that feature adult content, games or the like.
  • 45 percent of employers track content, keystrokes and time spent at the keyboard
  • 43 percent of employers store and review computer files

As a small business, it may not be necessary to monitor employees at the same levels as larger corporations, but that doesn’t mean small businesses should be in the dark about the benefits and risks of workplace monitoring and employee privacy.

Privacy, as defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law, is freedom from unauthorized intrusion or the state of being left alone and able to keep certain personal matters to oneself. Workplace privacy refers to the level of privacy a business allows to employees or that employees expect from an employer, not whether or not a business allows privacy at all; a certain level of intrusion and a certain level of privacy are expected from both parties.

Generally speaking, workplace privacy covers three different areas: Pre-employment screening (such as through obtaining criminal records or school transcripts), confidential information (such as maintaining employee files with social security numbers or personality test results) and monitoring employees on and off the job (such as by reading or storing e-mails or listening to phone conversations).

The benefits of employee screening and monitoring have been shown to increase the quality of job candidates, increase productivity of employees, enhance customer service and provide protection of information that is confidential or proprietary to a business. Employers aren’t the only beneficiaries, either. Employees see the same benefits, but with a slightly different perspective—any information obtained or collected by an employer could serve to substantiate raises or bonuses in providing evidence of hard work or respect of company time and resources. Sometimes information collected through monitoring can also be used to alter job descriptions or streamline processes for the better.

The key to finding a harmonious balance in walking the line between effective monitoring and respect to employees privacy revolves around putting it in writing and communicating it well. Here are a few pointers to consider if this sounds like territory your small business would like to explore:

  • Develop a workplace privacy policy to include in employee handbooks or stand-alone guides. In it, outline exactly what activities—if any—will be monitored, what information will be collected and stored. The most successful policies that are mostly likely to be adopted by employees are those that clearly outline the why, not just the how.
  • Conduct an audit of current practices and information collection to determine the need and any risks involved in monitoring employees or collecting information. Then, consult with a lawyer to draft a policy that works to your business’s needs and everyone’s benefit.
  • Don’t “grandfather” people in. If fully staffed and you decide to implement a workplace privacy policy, don’t wait until the orientation for new hires. Instead, get everyone on board by making an announcement to current staff first. Host a town-hall style forum to explain the details and answer questions. Be sure everyone leaves with a copy of the policy and a takeaway that reinforces the importance of data and information protection, like a secure USB drive or Multi-Card Reader.
  • If the policy developed prohibits certain websites like photo sharing sites or music, consider offering an alternative solution to keep morale up, like affordable Flash MP3 players or digital picture frames.
  • Once a policy is developed, keep an electronic copy handy and accessible to all, as well as a hardcopy version, too. Keep the hardcopy safe by tucking it in a binder for quick access on the shelf.
  • Take the value of privacy and tone of transparency beyond the cubicle and work it into sales practices—let customers know whether or not you collect their data from your company’s website and how it is used. The same should go for opt-in e-mail marketing and credit card transactions. Have pens or sticky notes printed with a number they can call with questions regarding privacy.

Workplace monitoring isn’t reserved for the big dogs—it provides benefits to smaller businesses, too. All businesses should have some knowledge of workplace privacy in case an employee asks or your small business booms. Check out our Blue Paper® on the topic for more information.


“The Latest on Workplace Monitoring and Surveillance.” American Management Association (AMA). Web. 18 Mar. 2010.

“Privacy.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law. Print.

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