The Nightmarish Effects of Workplace Surveillance
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Ethical issues arise in many aspects of the business world today.
Ethics play a pinnacle role in everything; from hiring practices to how
products are advertised. A company’s ethics, in part, determine the
success of the company and if neglected, it’s failure. Many CEOs claim
their companies are only as good as the people they employee. Thus, the
question arises; how do you make sure you have the best employees that
are going to contribute to the success of your business? Watch them!
Currently 80% of businesses are using one or more forms of employee
surveillance, and 50% of those companies do not inform their employees
that they are under surveillance.1 I’d like to believe companies try to use
surveillance to alter the behavior of their employees for the better,
however, that objective is not always achieved.
I argue that companies who use employee surveillance tactics are
changing employee behavior for the worse. The behavioral change is causing employees of such companies hardships that affect not only the
way employees act at work, but how they act in their personal lives as
well. I will provide evidence that supports the idea that surveillance
negatively affects employee behavior and causes more problems in the
workplace then it solves. There are many examples of company’s
surveillance tactics that show the negative affects it has on employees
such as increased stress, loss of identity and the emergence of privacy
In the first section of this paper, I will discuss the critical ethical
issue facing employees today which I believe is workplace surveillance.
Following, I will describe how companies are monitoring their employees.
Subsequently, I will review how the behavior of employees has changed. I
will then use these issues to support the notion that employee
surveillance is harmful to the individual and the broader society. Finally, I
will conclude this paper with the consequences of employee surveillance
and suggest how companies should conduct business.
There are a variety of ways to manage a company. No consensus
has been achieved as to which management method is the best and
different methods work for different companies. But should management
act on the assumption that their employees are doing something wrong?
Or should they trust their employees? When a company monitors their
employees, they send a direct message to the workers indicating that
employees are likely to do something wrong and, therefore, need to be
watched - and even punished. Sending this type of message is demoralizing to employees. Companies are using consequential ethics by
punishing their employees for inappropriate actions.
Consequential ethics refer to the notion that actions are judged
morally if the consequences of that action are more favorable than
unfavorable. 2 It has been shown in many psychology experiments that
people respond better to positive reinforcement they do to punishment.
For instance, a child in school who is getting D’s on his papers is more
likely to benefit from positive reinforcement and receive higher grades.
Instead of punishing the child, the parents alternatively offer a
compliment after a series of constructive questions, which encourages the
child to do better and not be discouraged by school. 3 People who have
punishment used against them sometimes have increased aggression and
fear of the punisher. 4 Because punishment causes negative effects on
people’s psyches, it is not a constructive method to use in the workplace.
It is better to reward employees whose behaviors are appropriate then to
punish those whose behaviors are not deemed proper. People in general
respond better to positive reinforcement and such an infrastructure
should be implemented into the workplace.
Employers like to leverage what is referred to as “panopticon
surveillance.” The panopticon concept was introduced to society in 1971
as a type of prison designed by Jeremy Bentham. The design allowed the
observer (guard) to observe all the prisoners from a central tower in a
circular prison without the prisoners being able to tell whether they were
being observed. The idea was later popularized by Michael Foucault, who
believed that modern society exercises its controlling systems of power
and knowledge through surveillance and an individual could increase their
power by watching others. 5 Employers who use panoptical surveillance
are constantly knowingly or unknowingly increasing paranoia in the
workplace. Some companies want to make their workers feel as though
every move they make could be under surveillance. Companies use
multiple types of surveillance so that they can constantly monitor
Companies are using every possible system available to monitor
their employees. Computer surveillance is widely used to monitor activity.
Companies block certain sites, and when an employee tries to access the
site a notification is sent to an IT database. These databases compile
information about employees and can be used against them during their
performance evaluations. As many as 65% of companies use software to
block connections to inappropriate Websites. Keystrokes are commonly
watched and stored by 36% of employers tracking content. 6 Spyware
monitoring such as website visits, keystroke tracking, and time use
monitors are intentionally being used on employee’s computers - and
companies see no ethical problems with this practice.
Another controversial surveillance method is e-mail surveillance.
Most employees do not realize that their e-mail is constantly supervised,
but in reality 55% of employers are retaining and reviewing sent and
received messages. 7 Many employees think that if an e-mail is from their
personal accounts it cannot be read. That is simply false, no matter what
service an employee is using to send or receive e-mail an employer can
look at what information is being communicated.
An additional method used is video surveillance. Companies
claim that they are using these methods for safety measures, but in reality
these video cameras are carefully placed so that employers can watch
what their own employees are doing on a daily basis. 8 Recording devices
are also placed around offices, so employers can see and hear what
employees are doing at all times.
Phone calls can be overheard and monitored. In some companies
certain numbers are even blocked so that employees cannot use the
company phone to call home. An example of phone call surveillance
comes from two McDonalds' employees,
“A manager of an Elmira, New York store, the other a manager of a
Binghamton, New York store, were having an extra-marital affair with
each other. Having been told only they had the access codes to their
voice mail, and believing it was confidential (as they were also told), they
began leaving romantic messages for each other on company voice mail
equipment. What they did not know was that the franchise owner
monitored voice mail. Upon discovering the tryst he played the
messages for the wife of the Elmira store manager, resulting in a divorce
This is an extreme instance of where monitoring employees’ voice
messages can have devastating effects on the employees’ personal life. It
turns out both employees got divorces and their personal lives met with
disarray. I am not arguing that the affair was correct, but going through
voicemails that were supposedly private is wrong. It was a violation of the
employees’ trust and the employer lied to them about their privacy rights.
Overall, six percent of companies have fired employees for misusing office
phones, and another 22% have issued formal reprimands to those who
abuse phone privileges. 9
Other examples of employee surveillance include companies
using the panoptic method. Call centers in the United Kingdom were the center of controversy because the companies practiced panoptic
surveillance of their employees computers. At any moment during the
day a picture could be taken of the employees’ screen to judge if they
were doing work properly and efficiently. At first glance, this does not
sound unethical and the companies seem to be just making sure people
were on task. It is not only until you look at it from the employees’ point
of view do you see the negative effects. The workers felt as though they
were animals and couldn’t be trusted. In addition, the workers
commented on the increased levels of stress they felt in the workplace.
Emotional problems arose from low trust between employers and
These are just a few instances of employees feeling the negative
effects of workplace surveillance. Such practices affect their behaviors
and reveal trust issues. Employees who are under surveillance constantly
feel the pressure; they know if they get caught doing something ‘wrong,’
they will face penalties. Moreover, there does not seem to be a reward
system in place to recognize when workers are on task. Again,
surveillance creates an imbalance in the workplace. According to the
2005 Electronic Monitoring & Surveillance Survey from American
Management Association, “26% of employers have fired workers for
misusing the Internet. Another 25% have terminated employees for e-
mail misuse. And 6% have fired employees for misusing office
telephones.” 11 This type of system is flawed. Were any of these
employees aware that their actions would result in termination? It is
doubtful, considering most employers do not tell employees they are
doing something wrong, only to fire them instead of correcting their
There are instances where employee surveillance can be
beneficial for the companies. Many companies claim that it is a cost
cutting venture. “Non-work related web use, for example, is supposed to
cost US corporations alone more than $54 billion a year.” 12 It is argued
that management has the right to defend itself against that kind misuse of
time and that it can best do so by surveillance. It can also be said that
employees benefit from surveillance because if a lazy co-worker is caught
misusing time then an employer can fire them, and other employees will
no longer have to cover for that “lazy” employee’s work.
Employers claim they are entitled to employees who are working
quickly and efficiently. Surveillance is supposed to hold employees
accountable for their actions. Some other employees think that they
need to help monitor people. Some feel it is their moral duty to watch
others and report abuse of company time. 12 If employees don’t find a
problem with watching each other, they should have no problem with
their employers watching them. After all, “Surveillance is supposed to
secure access, avoid misuse, and prevent theft.” 12
Surveillance is commonly used as a control of crime, preventing
theft in the workplace. 13 Workplace surveillance can track and even
provide evidence of people who are ultimately committing crimes.
Uncovering criminal acts can be viewed as doing a service, helping identify
and prosecute criminals.
Surveillance is necessary in some workplaces. It is needed for
government security, medical information and brokerage houses. These
are all instances where surveillance is crucial in keeping people safe and
information private. In all of these cases the workers are aware that surveillance measures are being taken to protect the companies’
While all of these reasons for having surveillance may be valid,
there are reasons why surveillance still has negative effects on
employees. The main reason not to engage in surveillance is because it
affects worker behavior. “Anthony Giddens discusses the guilt and shame
that flow from the anxiety about exposure of self to the outside world
when contrasted to the ‘idealized’ self we all carry around. In other
words, the self that I want to be rather than the self that I am.” 14 This can
be related to the workplace setting, when employees feel as though they
need to act one way at work and another at home, and it leads to
confusion. If there were no surveillance tactics, workers could act as they
normally would without the pressure to act in a specific manor all the
It has been noted in surveys that employees who are monitored
by computers are more likely to suffer from health, stress and moral
For example, “one investigation compared survey responses
of 50 clerical employees whose work was monitored by computer with
responses of 94 non-monitored employees who performed comparable
jobs. Self reported stress was higher among the monitored workers.” 16
Also in another study 762 telecommunications workers, who were
monitored reported feeling significantly higher levels of tension, anxiety,
anger, depression, and fatigue then non-monitored employees. 16 Taking
this into consideration, it is clear that surveillance can create low morale
in the company, and workers are more likely to leave. Employers are then
faced with the problem of hiring new employees, which presents costly
training challenges, production loss and morale issues. Also, finding
employees who are willing to work under surveillance conditions can be
more difficult. Companies can gain reputations for causing mental
instability in their employees and, subsequently, people will refuse to
work there. I have personally heard of Dish Network’s surveillance tactics.
The employees are constantly monitored and tracked with keycards. They
are allotted a certain time limit to use the bathroom or visit their car.
With a reputation like this surfacing, Dish Network will have a harder time
finding employees willing to work there. I am a perfect example of a
person who is adversely affected by a company’s reputation, and I will
never work for Dish Network.
Employees are also experiencing a loss of privacy. It has been
argued that the right to privacy is provided to us through the Constitution,
although it is not explicitly stated in the U.S. Constitution, a Supreme
Court ruling in 1965 claims that it is implicit from the Constitution. 17
Privacy itself, however, is a difficult concept to grasp, so let us think of it
in these terms; "privacy is the ability for an individual to control the use of
their own personal data, wherever it might be recorded.” 18 Let us also
consider that this personal data is property. If this is the case, then a
breach of privacy would be an infringement of property rights. Property
rights are protected by US law so therefore infringing on someone else’s
privacy is breaking the law. What if an employer is reading a confidential
e-mail between a lawyer and a client? That conversation is supposed to
be protected under law and it has been violated by the employer. 19
Because surveillance infringes on privacy, it also affects the basis
of self determination and self-identity. 20 “The term alienation as
derangement means, one is not oneself— in other words — one is a stranger to oneself.” 21 This is referring to the damage to self identity that
workers go through due to the result of loss of privacy. A technologically
driven workplace results in loss of privacy, because “the individual
adaptive behaviors generated by the situation give rise to alienation.” 21
When people lose their self identity due to surveillance practices it is hard
to recognize the benefits of such a system. When privacy is taken away so
are peoples identities. We all become cogs in a machine,
indistinguishable from one another.
Surveillance in the Foucaultican sense is used as a basis for power.
To gain power over employees, companies deny individuals an
unobserved space, and not allowing these people to have this necessary
unobserved space is a lack of respect for their wishes and needs. 22 When
employers use their positional power they are controlling peoples’ basic
needs. Employers cause employees not trust them because they, in turn,
do not trust their employees.
Tied to the idea of “panoptic power” is the idea of anticipatory
conformity. “This occurs when the norms of the authority figure become
so internalized that the socially desirable response is presented in
anticipation of the demand.” 23 At this point, workers become virtual
robots, and everything they do is at the will of their employer.
Supervisors are using the power of surveillance to entrap people so they
all act the same, and eventually do everything in a certain fashion. It is
coercive power and can be harmful, if used in the wrong way.
Taking everything into account including higher stress and a
profound loss, I believe it is morally wrong to use workplace surveillance to monitor employees. We are treating employees as though they are
criminals who should be under constant surveillance. This is demoralizing
and causes workers higher levels of anxiety. Managers of companies
should not suspect their employees, but instead give them the benefit of
the doubt, and believe that their people are trustworthy and want to do
the best job possible.
Managers need to focus on the two-factor theory of motivation
which states that for employees to prosper they need to be given
motivation and hygiene factors. Motivation factors such as achievement,
recognition and trust will lead employees to job satisfaction. Hygiene
factors include relationships with supervisors, co-workers and
subordinates. If these factors are not in place workers will go as far as
avoiding coming to work.
Employees need to know they are
appreciated and trusted otherwise they tend to rebel and they become
dissatisfied with work.
We should, as a society, treat employees in a virtuous way. The
virtue ethics perspective attempts to help people understand themselves
and develop moral capacities to live and work well in all situations.
should assume that workers are honest, trustworthy, loyal and focused
employees. If a company truly wants to change behavior using virtue
ethics is a simple way of doing so. “By promoting and facilitating methods
of moral education, character development, and emotional well-being of
the actor, an ethic of virtue can serve as a framework for implementing
positive change in behavior.” Or employers can hire employees who they
believe are virtuous.
The golden rule can also be applied here; treat others as you
would want to be treated. Employers do not want employees knowing
their every move, so they should offer their employees the same courtesy. Corporations should have faith in workers and believe that they
will work to the best to their abilities. Instead of punishing those who do
wrong, correct them and show them the right way. Reward workers who
are doing well, and this will instill confidence in the employee and the
I suggest that managers use transformative leadership which
emphasizes these values. This type of leadership in routed in morality,
being concerned with changing the behavior of people by first changing
their character. 25 Transformative leadership has been proven to be
extremely effective. “Transformative appears to have the ability to tap
higher depths of human potential and to produce levels of performance
that are beyond expectations.” 26 If managers stress the importance of
virtue in the workplace, the quality of employees they attract will be
superior to other companies.
Surveillance, if used, should be conducted in moderation.
Companies should not use “panopticonal surveillance;” it is just a fear
tactic. It will cause employees to worry that the consequences of what
might happen if they do something wrong. Employees will flourish in a
company in which they feel valued and trusted. If employers truly want
employees who are loyal and trustworthy, they need to first and foremost
believe that there are such people out there and entice them to join their
organization. If a company promotes itself as being virtuous, then
employees who value the same ideals will be drawn to that company.
Trust will prosper and over time any kind of surveillance will become
1. N.A. (2005). 2005 Electronic Monitoring & Surveillance Survey: Many
Companies Monitoring, Recording,Videotaping—and Firing—Employees.
American Management Association. Retrieved September 12, 2007 from
2. Fieser, James. (2006). Consequentialist Theories. Internet Encyclopedia
of Philosophy. Retrieved November 20, 2007 from
3. Kirkham, J. Richard. (2006). Long Term Benefits of Positive
Reinforcement vs. Negative Reinforcement. Tutoring and Positive
Reinforcement Techniques. Retrieved November 20, 2007 from
4. Feldman, R. (2005). Module 18: Operant Conditioning: The Pros and
Cons of Punishment: Why Reinforcement Beats Punishment.
Understanding Psychology 7/e University of Massachusetts – Amherst.
5. N.A. (2007). Panopticon. Wikipedia. Retrieved September 15, 2007
6. Ibid 1
7. Ibid 1
8. Gomez-Mejia, Luis R.; Balkin, David B.; Cardy, Robert L. (2007). Chapter
14: Respecting Employee Rights and Managing Discipline. Managing
Human Resources 5/e. , pg.441. Pearson Education Inc. Upper Saddle
9. Brown, W. S. (2000). Ontological Security, Existential Anxiety and
Workplace Privacy, Journal of Business Ethics 23: 61 – 65. Retrieved
October 2, 2007 from
10. Ibid 1
11. Rose, Ed; Wright, Gillian. (2005). Satisfaction and dimensions of control among call centre customer service representatives.
International Journal of Human Resource Management, Vol. 16 Issue 1,
12. Ibid 1
13. Ibid 1
14. Stahl, Bernd et al (2005). Chapter IV: Electronic Monitoring in the
Workplace: If People Don’t Care, then what is the Relevance? Electronic
Monitoring in the Workplace: Controversies and Solutions. p. 50
Published 2005 Idea Group Inc. Retrieved October 9, 2007 from
15. Miller, Seumas; Weckert, John. (2000). Privacy, the Workplace and the
Internet. Journal of Business Ethics 28: 255-265. Kluwer Academic
16. Ibid 8
17. Ibid 13
18. Aiello, John R. and Kathryn J. Klob. (1996) Electronic Performance
Monitoring: A Risk Factor for Workplace Monitoring. S.L. Sauter and L.R.
Murphy, (eds), Organizational Risk Factors and Job Stress (American
Psychological Association) p163-179. Retrieved November 20, 2007 from
19. Ibid 7
20. Ibid 12
21. Ibid 13
22. Ibid 12
23. Ibid 8
24. Ibid 12
25. Ibid 8
26. Ibid 7
27. Whetstone, J. Thomas. (2001). How Virtue Fits Within Business Ethics. Journal of Business Ethics. 33:101–114, 2001. Kluwer Academic
Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands. Retrieved November 20, 2007
28. Sergiovanni, Thomas J. (2006). Why Transformational Leadership Works and
How to Provide It. Rethinking Leadership: A Collection of Articles p. 79. Corwin
Press. Retrieved November 21, 2007 from