Email Regulation of Employers and Implications on the Workplace
Valerie Kirby and Amanda Rick
A break in the work day reminds an employee that she still needs to make a doctor’s appointment and find concert tickets for a sold out show next week. The employee begins surfing concert broker websites on her company-owned computer, making sure to delete the links from her pull down bar. The employee knows her company has a policy against doing non-work related activities at the workplace, but as long as she gets her work done, the employee believes she is not jeopardizing her career.
Employers are monitoring employee computer activity with surprising frequency and often without express knowledge of their employees. Though employee monitoring is an increasing trend in the workplace, the employee-employer privacy debate remains. Do employees have the right to use company time for personal tasks? How does allowing employees more personal time at work affect productivity? Does the employer have the obligation to inform employees that they are being regulated? Does daily activity influence promotions and salary?
Who is Regulating?
A survey of Fortune 500 companies in 2006 proved that monitoring is prevalent in the workplace. 84% of companies regulate email use, 41% regulate instant messaging programs, 76% monitor web surfing, and 65% use programs that block access to inappropriate or frequently visited personal sites (Email 1). According to the Washington Internet Daily Release, 67% of these employers have disciplined or terminated an employee for email or Internet abuse (Morris 4). The argument for this regulation is to prevent employees from visiting gambling, pornographic or hate websites. Additionally, it protects employers from responsibility for racial and/or offensive email forwards sent through the office email system (Morris 4). As the number of companies regulating computer use grows, so does the number of companies who have established policies informing employees of monitoring. Of the companies surveyed, 84% claimed to have a clear policy outlining their monitoring practices (Flynn). The number of employees who cited knowledge of monitoring at their workplace is much lower, causing researchers to question how hard employers are working to make these policies known.
Why Employers Regulate
Employers cite two primary reasons for regulating workplace computers. The primary reason is to evaluate performance, with content control cited as a secondary motive. First, employers regulate the workplace to measure and encourage overall productivity. An increase in time demanded at work has caused workers to feel the need to take care of personal business during work hours. Statistics indicate employers are justified in their concern over worker productivity. Employees spend an average of eight hours a day at the office. During this time, an estimated 2.09 hours a day are spent on personal emailing, phone calls, and web surfing (Malachowski). This personal time costs companies an average of $5,270 per employee per year, a total of $759 billion dollars a year (Malachowski). In 2001, personal instant messaging accounted for 82 million hours of employee time (Morris 4). Most companies do not use popular instant messaging programs such as AOL, in order to avoid employees chatting with friends. Online shopping also peaks during work hours. One online retailer records 65% of its orders between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm on weekdays, with a significant decrease during the weekend (Adam 35). With this massive amount of wasted payroll dollars, it is no surprise that employers are regulating email and Internet activity on company owned computers.
Second, companies are ultimately responsible for the actions of their employees and find that regulations protect the company in sexual harassment suits and discrepancies with outside parties. Prior to email monitoring, companies had a difficult time generating enough evidence to terminate or discipline employees who were sexually harassing others (Adam 35). Approximately 50% of surveyed employees at Fortune 500 companies said they had received a “racist, sexist, pornographic or otherwise inappropriate email at work” (Email 2). Of these Fortune 500 companies, 27% have defended themselves against sexual harassment claims, etc. through email monitoring (Email 2). Records of discriminatory comments are a guaranteed way for harassed employees to seek justice.
The increasingly frequent use of email also creates a casual atmosphere surrounding business transactions. Customer service is easily compromised through email, and employees have the power to forward trade secrets with the click of a button. Of the companies surveyed, 80% said they would fire an employee for a first offense of revealing trade secrets and, therefore, find that monitoring and regulating their employees is crucial (Everett 292). Permanent storage of emails allows a company to retrieve an email to enforce an electronic contract or agreement. Many companies argue for electronic monitoring because of the need to legally defend themselves.
The Rights of Employees/ Legal Issues
In 2005, only ten percent of the 14 million Americans who were monitored online claimed to know of any regulation at their workplace (Malachowski). Though the debate remains about whether employees should have to be informed, courts have generally held that employees should not reasonably expect privacy on company-owned machines (Morris 5). Laws have recently been created in some states requiring employers to create an inclusive policy informing employees of how often and what type of content is being regulated. A survey of employees in 2002 found that 26.9% of employees said their Internet and email use was not monitored. An additional 28.1% were unaware they were being monitored (Everett 294]. This perception is often created by companies who allow users to set up passwords to “lock” their computers from outside intrusion. What these employees do not understand is that the company keeps a record of all sent and received emails as well as each computer’s daily Internet activity. Employers do not need access to passwords in order to view activity on the computers their employees use.
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act was enacted in 1986 in response to a lack of privacy protection provided by the United States Constitution. Although e-mail privacy is not expressly mentioned in the act, the intent is to cover the scope of all “electronic communications.” Unfortunately, exceptions in this act leave employees with virtually no privacy protection. The “consent” exception permits employers to monitor business-related communications and determines if the scope is acceptable based on the employer’s reason for monitoring. This is a “powerful exception because of the ease with which an employer can create and provide a monitoring policy” (Email 2). Though no legislation prohibiting companies from monitoring their employees exists, there is a proposed legislation called the Notice of Electronic Monitoring Act (NEMA) which deals with how often employers must inform employees of electronic monitoring policies. Under last year’s version of this bill:
Employers would be required to tell employees at the time of hire about their electronic monitoring policy, notify workers annually and after a material change in electronic monitoring practices occurs. The notice would include monitoring scope, frequency, method, and use of the information. Employers would be exempt from giving notice when they reasonably believe that an employee is engaging in ‘harmful’ or ‘illegal’ conduct at work (Email 2).
This act is a step in the correct direction, because it would increase employee awareness and clarify what is being regulated.
What Employees Can Do to Protect Themselves
While companies should be clear about their policies by distributing them regularly to employee mailboxes, many are not. The most important thing an employee can do to protect herself is to inquire with one’s employer to determine the company guidelines.
Currently, there are few legal protections or rights for employees on company owned computers; therefore, employees need to take it upon themselves to learn and understand company monitoring practices. An article in Time magazine cites nine guidelines for smart work practices at a company that monitors an employee’s every move. Knowing the company policy tops the list, with other obvious hints, such as surfing the Web sparingly and not downloading pornography at work. Employees often do not think twice when forwarding “funny” forwards to outside friends and co-workers. However, Time magazine suggests considering whether a particular forward could be seen as offensive to women, minorities, etc. before forwarding. Any email sent from a specific employee’s account reflects her character and could put her job at risk. The article suggests proofreading emails and assuming the boss will see everything sent to others. Finally, the article recommends protecting the computer with passwords so coworkers cannot log-in to the machine; any information viewed, downloaded, or sent from that computer is assumed to be performed by its licensed user (Dell). These tips will help employees make smart decisions about the information they view and send on company-owned computers, because technological privacy is virtually nonexistent in a monitored workplace. The best practice for monitored employees is to assume they are being watched at all times and save personal activity for personal time.
How they do it
Businesses employ different monitoring practices depending on their needs and number of employees. Smaller companies flag emails based on specific words or repetitive domain names. Many of these smaller companies only spend the money to monitor “on an occasional basis in the manner of spot checks rather than constantly or on a regular routine” (Ciocchetti). Even more frequently, smaller companies will not regulate on a daily basis, choosing to only retrieve information from the database in defense of a particular claim (Ciocchetti).
Regulation programs are more sophisticated in larger companies, as these companies have higher occurrences of misuse due to the larger number of employees. A company with full monitoring services can potentially be recording information, such as the email recipient, the email sender, the number of words in an email, the amount of time the employee spent reading and composing the email, the number of attachments, and whether the email was personal or business-related (Ciocchetti).
SpectorPro is a type of software created to monitor employees in the workplace. This program observes every action performed on individual computers, including instant messaging, email, websites visited, pages visited on domains, searches, photos viewed, and programs downloaded. This advanced system not only records what employees do, but also the exact order in which employees perform these functions. For a one-time fee of $99.95 per computer, SpectorPro will provide full monitoring services and can track most independent email programs, including Outlook, MSN, and AOL databases (Spector).
Is it ethical to monitor personal activity considering the increased amount of time employees are spending at work?
It is no surprise that Americans are spending more time at work. Longer hours result in less personal and family time, more pressure to perform, and scattered work hours. During the work day, the average employee spends an estimated 45 minutes per day on personal tasks. Younger employees spend more time on personal activities, estimating that those between the ages of 18-34 spend 13 more minutes than 35-65 year-olds and 28 more minutes than those over 65 (Goodman). In response to financial incentives for longer hours, approximately 18.5% of men work an average work week of 50+ hours (Kuhn). As this average continues to increase, employers are considering the ethical implications of allowing a small amount of personal time at work. Employees agree that as long as personal tasks do not interfere with work deadlines and results, taking care of personal issues on company time can actually improve productivity.
The result of increasing technology and longer work weeks is scattered hours, allowing employees to be technologically connected and theoretically available at most times of the day. This constant communication redefines the definition of a “work day.” Employees may spend a little under an hour per day between the standard hours of 8am to 5pm work day on personal tasks, but often make up for that by working after hours and on weekends.
An article from Digital Trends News cites alternative reasons for cyber shopping during regular business hours. According to CyberSource, online shopping peaks around 4:00 pm Eastern time, or 1:00 pm Pacific time, with the heaviest volume on Monday and Tuesday and the lowest volume on Saturday and Sunday. These statistics are in spite of recent data that 2/3 of American homes have Internet access (Duncan). However, researchers are inferring that employees are using company time to surf the web, but do not take into account recent shifts in normal business hours. Additionally, many companies purchase items online or have employees work on flex-time schedules. Flex-time schedules allow employees to work convenient hours as long as the work gets finished. Companies are becoming more lenient in the structure of the work week, mostly because of technology that makes employees available anywhere.
Employers are generally understanding of the need to address personal tasks during work. The demand for additional hours spent on work tasks creates a need for employers to understand personal needs as long as employees maintain productivity standards and meet the bottom line.
Does monitoring affect productivity?
An increase in the average workday has caused many employees to resort to work hours to complete personal tasks. Researchers argue that strict policies against completing personal tasks may actually slow productivity as workers are stressed and preoccupied with things they need to take care of or simply need a short break to converse with friends. The argument is that if employees feel comfortable with taking work time to complete tasks, they will be more efficient in their work and more agreeable during the day. In fact, over 87% of employees found it permissible to spend 15-30 minutes per day checking personal email or surfing the web. Employers are beginning to agree. Though 51% of employers believe surfing the Internet and sending personal emails decreases productivity, 82% of companies are willing to compromise 15-30 minutes each day in return for improved attitudes and reduced stress levels of their employees (Muhl 38). Though the above number is lower than the current average time employees spend on personal activities during the work day, it makes it clear that employers are willing to compromise as long as the bottom line is met.
Another issue affecting productivity is employee trust and stress related to employee monitoring. Employees tend to feel mistrusted in their ability to do their work when they are being monitored. This loss of confidence in their work can affect performance and overall productivity. According to Alex Fowler, a spokesman for the nonprofit advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation, these feelings of mistrust are soothed by employers who maintain an open line of communication. "When companies are open and honest with their workers, they have a high degree of acceptance of their policies,” said Fowler (York). An understanding of the reasons policies are put in place as well as an understanding of their scope, will make employees feel more at ease. Being clear about the boundaries and what is permissible on company-owned computers will help dispel rumors and feelings of mistrust.
Should employers have to inform?
Another ethical dilemma is whether employers should be required to notify their employees that they are being monitored. Though courts have often held that employees have no reasonable expectation of privacy, the United States government is trying to introduce a law called Notice of Electronic Monitoring Act, as discussed above, which requires frequent notification of monitoring. As of 2003, two states have enacted legislation requiring sufficient notice of privacy policies to employees (Morris 4). Most companies surveyed have a regulation policy, but making employees aware of such practices helps prevent problems and keeps employers within reasonable boundaries. After cases of employers monitoring employees in private restrooms and tapping into personal email accounts, Kevin Conlon, district counsel for the Communication Workers of America, developed general guidelines to prevent employers from crossing the line into personal privacy breaches. He stated that there should be no monitoring of highly private areas, namely restrooms; that employees should have access to any of the information gathered about them during monitoring; that advance notice should be required; and only information relevant to the workplace should be collected (Pincus and Bucci 14). While few laws have been put in place requiring notification, employers have ethical obligations to inform their employees and not cross the reasonable expectation of workplace privacy.
What are employers looking for and do minor issues affect promotions?
A key factor in monitoring is understanding performance measures in the future. A study at Purdue University said companies were more likely to monitor new or entry-level employees before further promotion, or employees who were performing below the expected level (Alge 381). For this reason, higher level management is not regulated as intensely as lower level workers. Often, they are not regulated at all. Companies want to determine if employees are “dedicated” and “ethical” before increasing their salaries and promoting them for long-term careers. Employees who are performing below the desired level are also intensely monitored to determine if these employees are spending work time on personal tasks. The study concluded minor offenses of web surfing and personal emailing can affect promotion in instances where personal activity is interfering with performance or in cases of competition for a promotion.
When used effectively, “monitoring can serve to enhance productivity, establish and maintain production standards, and to diagnose problems in work flow and job design” (Lund 198). Many employers couple workplace monitoring with incentive pay or bonus structures. Companies who have clearly outlined promotion programs generally have lower instances of shirking. Shirking is defined as spending company time and resources on personal issues. Employees who feel valued in the workplace and understand the career path have lower instances of shirking and therefore, decrease the need for workplace monitoring. Employees who understand that their daily performance is monitored and will affect their future record have been shown to lower instances of personal activity during the work day (Lund 198).
To more closely examine the effects monitoring has on employees’ productivity, interviews were conducted at three companies in the Boulder area over a two week period. At the request of one of the companies, the names and interview subjects have been removed to protect company practices. Company A currently monitors their employees’ Internet activity, but does not have a clearly stated policy regarding their regulation. Company B also monitors their employees but has a policy that employees must sign their first day of employment, and Company C does not monitor their employees’ Internet activity. Company A and B are mid-sized companies with 75+ employees each, while Company C only employs 13 people.
A survey was developed and distributed to employees at the three test companies. The survey consisted of 7 questions and asked current employees’ opinions pertaining to whether they thought it was acceptable for their employers to monitor their actions. The survey continued by questioning what level of monitoring was acceptable, answered on a number rating scale. Additionally, the survey asked the employees if they were aware of their companies monitoring policies. The survey concluded with five questions that allowed insight into how much time the employee spent instant messaging at work, checking and composing personal emails, making personal phone calls, and amount of time spent each day on personal activities in the workplace.
The surveys were distributed to twelve employees at Company A. Currently, Company A uses e-mail monitoring software that monitors emails sent and received from their work addresses only. Company A has no clearly stated policy informing employees of this regulation. In an interview with the Executive Human Resource Director at Company A, she stated that “because the regulation only pertains to our employees’ work email, they should know better than to send personal emails through their work address.” After analyzing the survey results from Company A, it was found that an overwhelming 9 out of 12 employees did not believe their employer was currently monitoring their Internet activity. The results also showed employees used 1.65 hours of the workday performing personal tasks, most of which was spent on personal emails.
The results from the surveys distributed to fifteen employees at Company B differed from Company A’s results. Presently, Company B monitors their employees using SpectorPro, the software described earlier. Company B uses this software to monitor all employees’ Internet activity including, but not limited to, instant messaging, emails and web surfing activity. Company B also informs employees of their policy upon hiring. The following is part of their policy: “misuse of company computers, as outlined in the following policy, may result in suspension or termination of employment, and/or possible legal consequences. [Company B’s] procedure is to deal with each net-abuse case on an individual basis, taking into consideration the severity of the case.” From the survey it was found that 93% of Company B’s employees were aware that their employer was monitoring their Internet activity, and 6 of 15 employees surveyed felt it was acceptable for the company to do so. Additionally, the average amount of total time spent at work conducting personal activities was 35 minutes, leading to the conclusion that awareness of monitoring drastically limits the employee use of company time for personal tasks.
The results from Company C were even more predictable. An interview was conducted with an Executive Account Representative, who outlined the reasons behind the company’s decision not to monitor the workplace, “We do not monitor our employees because we feel our 10 hour workdays provide very limited time for employees to conduct personal tasks. With that said, if we feel an employee is abusing company time, they will be dismissed.” 6 out of 13 employees were surveyed at Company C. The results revealed only one employee believed his/her daily activity was monitored. The average amount of time spent instant messaging was 45 minutes per day, and overall time spent performing personal tasks averaged 2.16 hours. The results lead to the belief that the majority of the employees were aware they were not being monitored and abused this knowledge. The employees at Company C spent the more time than both Company A and B performing personal tasks while on the job.
Workplace monitoring is an increasing trend, especially among recent college graduates. It is crucial for employees to be acutely aware of the monitoring policies at the company they work for, as well as understanding how this monitoring affects promotion. While this essay explored ethical issues in workplace privacy, it is important to understand that individual workplaces have separate standards and that employees have extremely limited legal defenses against workplace monitoring. The best practice for employees is to use caution when sending and checking emails, making phone calls, and surfing the Web on company owned technology. Monitoring is an increasing trend and can potentially make all the difference in that promotion or salary increase.
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