It’s not easy being an employer. The business must offer competitive wages and benefits without over-paying. It must keep employees happy but still maintain workplace discipline. It must protect its customers and its assets without seeming to distrust its employees. Without being overbearing or acting as a strict parent, it must ensure that employees are doing their work and doing it well. Many employers, using modern technology, are keeping an eye on workers — literally. A 2007 study by the American Management Association and The ePolicy Institute revealed that:
- 66% of employers monitor employees’ Internet connections
- 65% use software to block employees’ access to some Web sites
- 43% monitor employees’ e-mail
- 45% monitor the time employees spend on the phone and the numbers they call
- 16% record employees’ phone conversations
- 9% monitor voice mail messages
- 7% monitor employees’ job performance using video surveillance
Also, in certain industries employers search workers’ workstations and lockers, perform drug tests and physicals, investigate their backgrounds, and even monitor their activities outside of work. When an employer disciplines or fires a worker based on information it learned through one of these methods, the worker might become angry enough to sue the employer for invasion of privacy. Although federal and state laws generally permit employers to monitor workers’ activities and use of employer property, some suits succeed and all of them divert financial and human resources away from the employer’s main business. There are several things employers can do to avoid this.
- Establish a workplace policy about non-business phone and Internet use, and include it in the employee manual. The policy should describe the extent to which the employer will monitor phone and Internet use, if any, and the consequences should employees violate the policy. Ensure that employees are aware of it by discussing it at staff meetings and asking them to document that they have read it.
- Be careful about audio recording conversations. Although state and federal laws generally permit employers to use video monitoring of employees, some restrict the ability to make audio recordings or to listen in on conversations. Employers should become familiar with the wiretapping laws in their states before using audio monitoring.
- Keep employee e-mails confidential. Employers have the right to monitor their employees’ use of the business e-mail system, but making e-mails public (absent some legal or business requirement) might violate employee privacy rights.
- Include in the employee manual a written policy regarding employer searches of desks, workstations, and lockers. This should describe the employer’s right to conduct searches, the reasons it may do so, and the consequences should an employee refuse to cooperate. Conduct searches only when absolutely necessary for business or legal reasons, and take care to respect the employee’s dignity by doing the search out of the view of other employees.
- Perform drug tests for legitimate business reasons and at appropriate times, such as during the hiring process and following a workplace accident. If the employer will administer random drug tests, it should have a written policy stating as much in the employee manual and it should conduct the tests with as little privacy infringement as possible.
- Obtain a job applicant’s written consent for a background check, and investigate only those factors relevant to the position. For example, a credit check might be appropriate for a position that requires handling money.
Keep employee information safe from individuals outside the company. Instruct managers and staff not to discuss personnel matters with outsiders and employees who do not need to know the information.
Employers must run an efficient operation, maintain a safe workplace free of harassment, make employees feel comfortable in their work, and make a profit. Following these steps will reduce the chances of employee lawsuits and allow the business to focus on its core mission.