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What Is Workplace Monitoring?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Workplace monitoring is a practice that involves keeping an eye on activities and conditions in a workplace for health, security, and business reasons. There are a number of tools that can be used for this task and employers can use the information they collect in a variety of ways. This practice can create a conflict between the reasonable expectation of privacy and an employer's need to run a business and there have been several high profile suits challenging workplace monitoring practices on the grounds that they violate employee privacy.

Tools for monitoring can include cameras, audio monitors, and monitoring of phone and computer use, either with logs or with manual monitoring by information technology personnel. Other practices can include random drug testing, periodic supervisor visits to a floor, consultation of logs associated with equipment like copiers, and the use of air quality monitors and other devices designed to check for environmental health risks.

Employers argue that workplace monitoring is needed to keep workplaces safe, healthy, and efficient. Keeping an eye on working conditions can allow people to spot problems like theft, harassment, and improper conduct early, before they become a problem. For businesses handling secure or confidential information, monitoring may be used to ensure that client privacy is protected. Monitoring can also provide clear safety benefits for employees, as in the case of closed circuit television systems used at places like banks.

Employees may resent monitoring, especially if it is extensive or intrusive. In some workplaces it may be considered a necessary term of employment, while in others, it can be considered a violation of privacy. Suits involving monitoring that has been done without employee knowledge or consent have sometimes been won on the grounds that the practice violated privacy.

The law on workplace monitoring is in a state of flux in response to changing technologies. While the law agrees that practices like walking the floor as a supervisor to check for misconduct and problems are entirely appropriate and legal, there have been debates about things like reading private email, recording phone conversations, and monitoring employees on camera. Monitoring without awareness is generally more complicated legal ground because employees do not have a chance to consent.

Some governments have passed laws specifically addressing workplace monitoring and outlining the legality of different monitoring practices. In other regions, much of the law concerning this practice is established through case law, as the result of lawsuits.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a SmartCapitalMind researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By icecream17 — On Jul 04, 2011

@Oasis11 - I understand what you are saying, but employees should know upfront that their calls and emails could be monitored. This way there is no excuse if they are caught sending personal emails on company time or making excessive personal phone calls.

It is important to use workplace monitoring software so that you can actually see where the employee is going when they log on to the system. There have been people caught accessing pornography sites which is highly inappropriate in the workplace.

I think that employees that know that they will be monitored and take the chance anyway have no one but themselves to blame. Internet monitoring is important because if people are surfing the web and not working they are going to hurt your business. Employees do have breaks that they can take when they want to make a personal call and that is the time that they should do it, not when they are working.

By oasis11 — On Jul 04, 2011

@SauteePan - I agree with monitoring employees in the workplace to a degree. I know that not everyone has the same work ethic and you really want to make sure that everyone is performing their job correctly, but there is also a fine line.

A great employee might be offended if workplace monitoring ethics are not in place, and it could have a negative effect on their productivity and overall employee morale.

By SauteePan — On Jul 03, 2011

@Sneakers41 - I agree with you. I think that many companies resort to monitoring employees in the workplace by recording their phone calls and offering mystery shoppers that will complete a report on the customer service aspects of the store.

Usually if you work in a call center you will know that the calls are going to be monitored. This is to make sure that you are not only doing your job correctly, but also to make sure that you don’t offend the customers calling. I used to do customer service support for a company out of my home and my calls were monitored.

All of my calls were recorded but my supervisor would pick a few calls at random and then review the results with me. I actually enjoyed the review process because my supervisor was always positive and encouraging. This company looked at how I followed my script, the intonation of my voice, my attitude on the phone, as well as if I addressed the customer by name throughout the call.

They also looked to see if I followed proper procedures during the call. I think that if you are doing your job correctly employee monitoring in the workplace should not bother you. I know that we occasionally had mystery shoppers and the supervisors themselves would call different agents to see if they were following proper procedures and were friendly on the phone.

I think that monitoring is part of the business because they say that a customer that receives a negative experience tells about nine to twenty people and companies cannot afford this type of press.

By sneakers41 — On Jul 02, 2011

I remember years ago when I worked as a manager in a large department store, the store required all female employees to put their personal belonging in a clear plastic purse that the store would issue them. This was a form of monitoring because they wanted to see what you had in your bag and make sure that you did not steal anything.

They also made sure that all employees and managers came in and exited through the employee entrance where your bag would be inspected. No one really minded because this was standard practice in the retail business. I do think that employee monitoring in the workplace is important because you want to make sure that the customers are being served properly and you want to cut down on potential theft.

In the retail industry they say that a large portion of the merchandise shortages in retail stores are due to internal employee theft. So it makes sense that they would create monitoring polices to reduce this from happening.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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