No matter whether you’re running a small, medium or large enterprise, each organization needs to have a clear set of office and remote employee control mechanisms. They can be normative or regulative, yet each type lugs its own set of rules and practices for successful application. If your needs include tracking employees’ productivity and controlling their work-related actions, then there are some permissions and some restrictions that you must be aware of. This post is intended to guide you throughout that process.

Surveillance of employees in the workplace, as one type of internal control, has long been a hot topic among managers, human resources professionals and employment lawyers. The development of IT equipment used in the course of work, the widespread use of social media, the increasing level of teleworking and other flexible working methods – all of these have impacted employers to implement new techniques for controlling their employees’ work.

Most jurisdictions have regulations which give employers the right to control their employees, and rightfully so. At the same time, employees have a legitimate expectation of both privacy in the workplace and appropriate protection of their personal data. Employers’ rights of control are therefore always limited by employees’ right to privacy.

There are some principles of surveillance that employers should follow when establishing internal policies for control and employee monitoring. Dániel Gera from International Law Office explains some of them:

  • The surveillance must relate to the employer’s proper operations.
  • The surveillance is allowed only to the extent necessary to protect the employer’s rightful interests and any restriction of employees’ privacy must be proportionate.
  • Employees must be informed in advance of the possibility of surveillance.
  • Personal data related to the surveillance must be handled in accordance with the general principles and rules of the local law legislative.

After you have made sure these steps are carefully taken care of, you need to consider which types of monitoring fits your business’ needs the best. Usually there are 4 aspects of technological monitoring, which are often combined for the sake of getting the best picture of how employees utilize their time and resources.

1. Monitoring telephone calls

In situations where employees are provided with a company-owned cell phone, the employer is entitled to restrict or completely prohibit the private use of the phone; although a reasonable degree of private use is usually accepted. Intercepting phone calls is forbidden, while it is considered lawful to conduct actions based on the operation of tracking software on employees’ smartphones (even without their knowledge).

2. Monitoring email correspondence

Professional email addresses should be used primarily for professional purposes, but a reasonable degree of private use is usually accepted, as long as this does not interfere with professional use. Employers may prohibit sending or receiving emails to/from specific addresses and may use specific filters to apply these rules.

Employers are allowed to access employees’ mailboxes for monitoring and control purposes, provided that the employees are informed in advance of the reasons for such access. If possible, it is recommended to allow employees sufficient time to dispose of their private data before accessing their mailbox. Employers may access the contents of messages sent or received by employees in professional matters. However, if a message can be assumed to be private, the employer may not access its contents.

3. Monitoring internet use

Employers are also free to establish rules concerning the use of the Internet in the workplace, which may include allowing, banning or restricting access to specific websites. Restrictions may include:

  • Material restrictions (i.e. restricting access to certain types of websites, such as gaming and gambling sites);
  • Volume restrictions (i.e. restricting the amount of data transferred);
  • Temporal restrictions (i.e. restricting the timeframe in which access to specific sites is allowed);
  • The use of social media may also be banned, if considered necessary.

Controlling access to websites is allowed only if employees are informed in advance of this possibility. If access is granted to certain sites on which private data or content is stored (e.g. private email accounts and electronic banking accounts), such data may not be accessed by the employer. Generally, it is advisable to train employees on acceptable internet use in the workplace, as improvident internet use may lead to security risks for the company itself.

Besides controlled or limited access to certain websites, another commonly used way of computer use monitoring are software solutions that track all the actions of an employee on their office computer. These time tracking software record all the websites, applications and actions that have been approached on each computer, as well as the duration of each approach and the time spent on them in total. Programs like these can work in the background, with or without the employee’s knowledge about it, and can provide useful data for further insights and analysis. You can become aware of the actions of individuals, as well as the overall productivity of your staff.  Furthermore, you can target potential stumbling blocks, or compare employees’ mutual performances. Other huge potential benefits include monitoring remote employees, or the possibility of improving the quality of employees’ work in the absence of managers.

4. GPS tracking devices

Another interesting aspect of control and surveillance is the use of built-in Global Positioning System (GPS) devices in company cars. While the use of GPS tracking systems may well be an appropriate method to protect employers’ rightful interests (e.g. protection of property and checking appropriate use of vehicles), GPS devices may not be used to monitor employees’ whereabouts outside working hours.

Establishing good policies and practices for technology monitoring are extremely important, not only because they facilitate employers’ legal compliance, but also because of enhancing employees’ well-being by safeguarding their right to privacy. However, keep in mind that too much control can create an atmosphere lacking in trust and trigger defense mechanisms in your employees’ behavior. For that reason, keep your mutual relationship open, honest and professional; and try to maintain the balance between your business’ safety and your employees’ liberty and satisfaction.

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