It’s the era of technological advancement, the era of prosperity and opportunity, where it’s not kings and queens that rule, but corporations and brands. And in this world, data is the new gold. You want to collect it, protect it, use it, turn it into a product, turn it into money; whatever it is, data is important and you need it. Maybe that’s why you’ve decided to monitor your employees in the first place - another set of data that’s going to help your company drive profit or stay afloat.


But with money turnover as the priority comes a serious side effect - employee turnover. We don’t live in a bleak machine-driven dystopia just yet, so employees are your most important assets. And they have feelings, attitudes and opinions.


This is precisely the reason why you, as a business owner or manager, need to ask ‘Is this ethical?’ for every business decision you make that concerns your employees. One of these decisions might as well have been implementing employee computer surveillance.


Before we move on to employee monitoring ethical issues, we’ll stop for a second to discuss why a company might deem it necessary or simply beneficial to monitor their employees’ computer activities.

The Rise of Employee Monitoring Software


The number of businesses that have computer use tracking software is constantly growing. Now, it’s not even just big corporations. All of a sudden, small and medium-size companies are opting for implementing it too. Many small remote teams and even some freelancers are using at least some type of simple time tracking software.


Why? What’s the big deal?


There are three broad reasons why companies decide to monitor their employees. The first is data (yes, that word again). More specifically, data and information security. A survey from last year found that as much as 90% of companies see insider threats and breaches as a genuine concern, which is why they feel the need to monitor their employees’ access to confidential data.


Secondly, companies want to have a certain amount of control over how their assets are being used, including their computers, network, corporate files and office time. And finally, managers might want employee tracking insights so they can optimize business processes and employee productivity. This is such a well-understood benefit that as much as 78% of employees stated in one survey that, if in a position of a manager, they themselves would conduct employee monitoring for time management purposes.


So there’s no wonder that more and more companies track their employees’ performance with a software. Data security, control over assets and increased productivity are all good incentives for a company.


While computer tracking software such as Workpuls can help with all this and more, any type of employee monitoring is generally viewed with a dose of suspicion by the employees. Why? Because, as we’ve said, they’re good incentives for a company. Not much is said about the individuals it affects.


And finally, here we are, at the crux of the employee monitoring ethical dilemma - are we right in sacrificing a little bit of employees’ personal privacy for the good of the whole company? Do we absolutely have to? And, of course, the question that’s on everybody’s minds:

Is It Even Legal?


There are a number of resources and articles that go in depth about employee privacy and monitoring laws, so we’ll just provide a very short answer.


It’s legal in most cases, but the specifics of laws and regulations depends on the country in which your business operates. For example, you might have to notify your employees or even ask for their consent.


So do get familiar with the law. It will sometimes serve to guide you in answering some of the questions that you might be harboring about the ethics too.

is employee monitoring legal

So, Is Employee Monitoring Ethical?


Unfortunately, there’s no one definitive answer to this question. The question is further complicated by the fact that the answer to it isn’t even a bipolar yes-no, but more likely a scale. In other words, we might be able to say that computer monitoring is ‘somewhat ethical’ or ‘mostly ethical’ or ‘extremely unethical’ and so on.


Viewing the issue in this light, it becomes obvious that the distinction between ‘somewhat’ and ‘mostly’ ethical is just as difficult to make as it is between ‘ethical’ and ‘unethical’.


Besides, what does ‘ethical’ even mean? Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ethics as ‘the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation’. But what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and ‘moral’ in the business context? What’s ‘good’ for your company might not be ‘good’ for your employees. So, is balance what’s most ethical? Or, if you swing towards utilitarianism, is employee monitoring good as long as the results of it are? For instance, your data is secured so your company still has clients, and if you had to read a couple of personal emails to make that happen, hey, it doesn’t matter because those employees got to keep their jobs, right?


This quickly gets philosophical to the point of not having any bearing on how you run a business or make actual decisions.


So the question you should be asking isn’t whether or not employee monitoring is ethical, but whether it can be. Now, the answer to this is a much more resolute yes.


Let’s take a look at three crucial factors in making sure you’re monitoring computers in your workplace ethically and with as much consideration to your employees as to your business goals.

Transparency


Some very interesting stats incoming. In last year’s survey commissioned by Dtex Systems, 77% of American employees claimed they would be less concerned about their computers being monitored if their employer tells them about it. Furthermore, 70% of them said they would consider quitting their job if they found out that they were being monitored secretly.


What does this data tell us? One important take-away could be that employees apparently value transparency and honesty more than their privacy at work.


All the reasons we’ve mentioned at the beginning of this article - security, performance and control of assets - are valid reasons for choosing to monitor work computer activity. Employees are obviously aware of this as well. So, there’s absolutely no reason why you would choose not to be upfront about activity tracking.


If you’re worried about this process negatively affecting your employees’ morale and office atmosphere, just think what the consequences of finding out you’ve been doing it in secret could be.


Transparency is not only an obviously ethical way to go, but upholding it will give you a chance to get employee system monitoring to harmoniously coexist with employee trust within your company culture.


As long as you are open and honest about it, there’s no need to sacrifice ethics to get all the benefits of corporate monitoring software. If your employees know what’s going on and agree to it, a large part of your ethical dilemma is resolved.

Employee Monitoring Policy


Another way to ensure you’re tracking computer activities in an ethical way is to make and stick to a detailed employee monitoring policy. These will basically be your guidelines for how to monitor your employees. It’s also a good idea to share this document with your employees so that they know what’s going to be monitored and how. This will further add to your pursuit of transparency.


What should this monitoring policy include? Well, it’s simpler than it might seem. In fact, you can compile pretty solid guidelines by answering just five questions about the process of monitoring employee computer activity: Why? What? Who? Where? And When?

employee monitoring policy


We’ll go into a bit more detail for each of these questions and how they can guide your behavior towards the ‘ethical’ side of the spectrum.

1. Why Should I Monitor My Employees?


This is a critical question and that’s why you should answer it first. If your answer is any of these:


  • ‘So that I can spy on employees’ computers and read their personal messages’,
  • ‘Because I’m bored’,
  • ‘Because everyone else seems to be doing it’, or
  • ‘I don’t know’,


then you are a prime example of how unethical employee monitoring begins.


If, on the other hand, it’s actually something that’s going to help your business in some way, like better time management or compiling reports on billable hours for your clients, then you’re on a much better track. There are multiple reasons why you might like to conduct the monitoring, even including some legal incentives for doing so, but it all boils down to this:


The legitimate business reasons for monitoring employees are going to be a framework for how you’re going to conduct the whole process and keeping them in mind will ensure ethical behavior that’s fair to your employees and achieves actual business results.

2. What Should I Monitor?


If you’ve answered the previous question, this one should be easy and obvious. There are many things you can track by monitoring computer activities. Some of them include the use of productive versus unproductive apps, time spent on certain websites, project progress tracking, attendance and overtime tracking, security screenshots... And this is just the tip of the iceberg.


Tracking all of them indiscriminately is not only a huge waste of your time and effort, but it can also be viewed as a breach of employees’ privacy. The key is to focus on your business goals.


Want to boost productivity? Track use of different apps. Want to finish projects faster? Track and analyze time on different tasks. Want to ensure data security? Take screenshots when employees have access to sensitive data. You get the point.


Of course, you can track more than one metric, but make sure all of them have a specific point. Ultimately, you need to be able to answer the question: ‘How am I going to use this data in the real world?’


It’s very hard to give a reasonable answer to this question for most personal data like private correspondence of employees with no access to confidential information. In fact, you’ll sometimes get the clearest picture by aggregating anonymous data rather than analyzing it for each individual employee. And what better way to ensure your employees’ privacy and approval?


Again, we’ll reiterate - only aligning your business monitoring software with your actual business needs and tracking the data that helps you with that can make employee monitoring useful and ethical.

3. Who Should I Monitor?


This is where you have two options. The first one is to only monitor employees that you consider a threat. This approach, however, is an ethical minefield. Obviously, you need to have some degree of reasonable doubt in order to target one or several particular employees.


But what will you base your suspicions on? Reputation? Rumors? Perceived behavior? A past incident that could have been accidental?


If you’re right in your assumptions, then great - you’ve prevented a leak or fired a liability. But what if you’re wrong? Selectively monitoring a computer based on false suspicions is going to be seen as highly unethical and unfair at least by that employee.


The second option you have is to monitor all employees indiscriminately. This option is ethically much safer. You’re treating everyone equally, you’re aggregating data, and you’re only isolating specific employee’s activity if it raises red flags.

4. Where Should I Conduct the Monitoring?


Because you’re using a program to track computer usage, you can track in-office and remote teams alike. So, the ‘where’ in this question has less to do with the actual location and more with the machines you decide to install workplace monitoring tools on.


It’s usually considered ethical to implement corporate employee monitoring on corporate computers and equipment. After all, it’s the company’s property, so employees can’t really expect a lot of personal privacy there.


On the other hand, tracking computer activities on personal devices is in the ethical grey zone. If you provide work computers to all your employees, why would you have the need to monitor their private ones? But then again, sometimes you might not have a choice. For example, you have a remote team that works from home using their own equipment. How can they be sure you’re not monitoring them when they’re not working?


Generally, it’s best advised to provide computers for all your teams and monitor those. If you can’t do this, maybe you should consider trusting your employees without tracking their computer usage for the sake of maintaining the ethics.

5. When Should I Track Employees’ Activities?


Lastly, this is the point of your monitoring policy that can win or lose a lot of ethics points. However, as long as you only monitor employees’ performance during official working hours, you should be fine.


Counting their (usually unproductive) activities during breaks, for instance, towards their general productivity trend might be considered as crossing the line. Same goes for period after working hours if your employees are taking their laptops home.


Office time is company’s time, but everything outside that is their own personal space that you should respect and stay out of. Possible security threats outside working hours can be addressed in other less invasive ways, such as restricting access.


Carefully thinking about all of these five points and including them in your employee monitoring policy will help you stay on track when it comes to ethics and respect for privacy, but it will also help your employees see and accept the values that software used to monitor employees can bring to the company as a whole.

Access to Employee Monitoring Data


One last factor to take into consideration in order to ensure ethical performance tracking is who has access to the data you collect with software monitoring programs.


If you want to protect your employees’ performance data, you shouldn’t just give these reports out freely. And we don’t only mean to third parties. You should also be careful who you share this information with within your own organization.


As a business owner, you have the right to know what everyone is doing, but does your CMO really need to know how much time your Junior Developers are spending on Reddit? Probably not. So think about who has access to what and try to narrow this circle down as much as possible.


Here’s another idea to consider - giving employees access to their own data. Many computer monitoring tools, Workpuls included, have this option as a default, so all you need to do is make sure employees know about it.


Why should you do this? Well, one reason is ethics - letting employees see what you see will help reinforce the idea of transparency and it’ll also build trust. Another reason is more pragmatic in nature - the reports and data on their performance might be valuable to employees in figuring out ways they can improve and be more productive.

Oh, And One More Thing...


Now, all this talk about ethics sure looks good on paper, but you’re running a company and you don’t have time to go through all these steps just to get a pat on the back from moralists. So, let’s see why you should really care.


What if I get it wrong? If you fail to conduct employee monitoring in an ethical and responsible way, your conscience might get to you. But you’re also running three very serious risks for your business: legal suit (because law and ethics sometimes tend to overlap), bad reputation (who wants to work for or be a client of an evil spying organization?) and high employee turnover (side note: to calculate how much employee turnover can cost you in actual money, check out this article).


What if I get it right? Well, everything opposite from the things in the previous paragraph - smooth sailing through laws and regulations, spotless reputation and employee retention. Plus a couple of added bonuses, like unobstructed productivity increase and fair evaluations.


So, being ethical is not just a matter of philosophy. Ethics should be an integral part of every business process, especially one as controversial as company computer monitoring. Respecting your employees and caring for their privacy and fair treatment is a prerequisite for success. And getting there is simple. Instead of wondering if employee monitoring is ethical in itself, you can ensure that it is if you start by asking: ‘How can I make it ethical?’

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