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November 26, 2019

How to Balance Surveillance and Employee Privacy in the Office

Employee Privacy: How Much Workplace Surveillance is Too Much?

Improvements in technology and advances in innovation have afforded employers more opportunities than ever before to track, monitor, and analyze business activities in both the physical and digital spaces. But along with this power comes great responsibility.

Showdown: Surveillance vs. Privacy

Surveillance and monitoring are highly beneficial for businesses. Whether it’s closed circuit television, audio recording, or cloud-based monitoring, successful companies fully leverage the resources they have available at their disposal. However, any time an employer adds a new set of eyes or ears, employees will have questions and concerns in regards to privacy.

Surveillance technology isn’t new, but the ubiquitous usage is. The emergence of sensors, wireless recording devices, and advanced analytics platforms means it’s now possible for employers to track employee activities without overt demonstrations.

“Overall, corporate interest in surveillance seems to be on the rise,” Ellen Sheng of CNBC reports. “A 2018 survey by Gartner (News - Alert) found that 22% of organizations worldwide in various industries are using employee-movement data, 17% are monitoring work-computer-usage data, and 16% are using Microsoft (News - Alert) Outlook- or calendar-usage data.”

Most surveillance isn’t actually an infringement upon employee privacy, but the potential for abuse abounds.

“Federal and most state privacy laws give discretion to employers as to how far they can go with their employee monitoring program,” Business News Daily explains. “In some cases, employers do not have to inform employees they are being monitored, but this depends on state and local laws. Some regulations require employee consent.”

Generally speaking, employees don’t have much expectation of privacy when they’re on company property or using company equipment (including laptops, vehicles, smartphones, etc.). But monitoring must be bridled. Whereas it’s okay for an employer to monitor how an employee is spending his time on a work-issued computer, it’s not okay to use the front-facing camera of a smartphone to record video of an employee without her consent.  The same goes for security cameras in the workplace. While it’s perfectly legal to record footage in hallways of an office, a camera can’t be used in a private restroom.

This isn’t an issue that’s solely dealt with in the corporate world. We’re also seeing arguments over technological boundaries in other areas of business and personal life. For example, there’s a major debate at the moment about how much smart technology landlords should be allowed to place in homes that they’re leasing to tenants. Then there’s the separate issue of how much activity smartphone manufacturers like Apple (News - Alert) and Samsung should be allowed to track and record on its users.

At this point, there are far more questions than there are answers, but one thing is clear: Businesses must do a better job of utilizing surveillance technology, otherwise trust will erode.

5 Tips for Monitoring Without Infringing

As you usher your business into 2020, you need to think about how you can properly leverage the latest innovations to gather insights and safeguard your company from dangerous threats without infringing upon the trust and privacy of your employees. Here are some suggestions:

1.     Know Your Limits

For starters, you have to understand what the law says regarding surveillance and workplace privacy. A failure to follow the guidelines as implemented in your state can have major ramifications – legally and financially. If you aren’t careful, it can also explode into a PR nightmare.

You can read up on some details of privacy laws here, but if you have questions it would be wise to contact a business attorney who can provide state- and situation-specific advice.

2.     Communicate Often

The best thing you can do is communicate early and often. Don’t hold back anything. The more transparent you are, the more fair your employees will perceive you to be.

“Social science research has consistently shown that when employees think they’re being treated fairly, they’re more likely to embrace an organization’s values and goals,” behavioral scientist Azish Filabi explains. “Perceptions of unfairness are a major driver of misbehavior, and are a minimum requirement of an ethical culture…”

The best time to communicate something is before it happens. Trying to backtrack and explain that you’ve been doing something for months or years is a recipe for disaster. You risk making employees feel violated and distrustful.

3.     Listen to Concerns

Communication has to go both ways. If you’re only speaking at people, you aren’t really communicating – you’re just lecturing. You must be willing to listen to concerns and address them appropriately.

The key word here is “listen.” Management is still in charge and has every right to call the shots (assuming the activities are legal and ethical). Sometimes listening just looks like asking for feedback, acknowledging that the feedback is heard, and moving on. Other times it actually involves applying the feedback in a manner that benefits the company and ensures employees feel heard.

4.     Limit Your Activity

Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you always should. In other words, state laws provide a lot of freedom in regards to what you can record and monitor, but you shouldn’t always go to the full extent of the law. There’s something to be said for limiting your activity and only gathering the information and data you need to protect your business.

For example, do you really need to know where every employee is at every second of the day? Unless you have a team of salespeople who are constantly out of the office and traveling from place to place, you probably don’t have to use location tracking. Or if you have strategically located cameras at entrances and exits of your office building, do you really need cameras pointed at every cubicle and workstation? (You might – but chances are you don’t!)

Having the ability to monitor something and not doing it says something about your company’s approach to management. This won’t be lost on your employees.

5.     Hold Leaders Accountable

“Those companies that achieve the right balance between trust and control do so by requiring leaders to take responsibility for the environment they create,” Filabi mentions.

If you’re going to implement monitoring technology and surveillance solutions, you have to be willing to hold the executive leadership team responsible for their actions. Don’t miss this, or you could face some serious repercussions.

Reaping the Benefits of Proper Surveillance and Monitoring

There is no perfect answer to this conundrum. Any time there is surveillance and monitoring, there will be people who distrust the technological infrastructure you have in place to protect your company’s best interests. The key is to be open and honest with your intentions and to have systems in place to prevent abuse from occurring. If you do this well, technology will work for you, rather than against you.

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