Ethical Implications of Employee Monitoring

Ethical Implications of Employee Monitoring

In recent years information technology (IT) has transformed workplaces tremendously. For instance, employers worldwide have embraced the use of technology to monitor the activities employees engage in during working hours and to increase the amount of work done on online business platforms. This was largely influenced by findings from numerous studies that established that if left unsupervised, employees tend to waste a lot of time and resources online. In fact, one Survey by Websense reported that one third of employees used the internet for personal reasons, which translates to costs of about $85 billion in America due to lost work time (Papini, 2007). Some employees may also use company resources for their own gain, which violates the organization’s rules and procedures and decreases their productivity. According to a study done by the Work Surveillance Project of the Privacy Foundation[footnoteRef:1], of the 100 million online workers around the globe, 35% are being monitored (Weckert. 2005). In the U.S., an Electronic Monitoring and Surveillance Survey[footnoteRef:2] reported that more than a quarter of the total employers have dismissed employees for misuse of emails and a third have dismissed them for wrongful use of the internet. However, along with the benefits of information technology comes potential problems to an organization; such as security breaches, violation of privacy, or misuse. This text identifies the roles IT plays in employee monitoring, how it impacts the organization, and it also examines some of the ethical issues it brings forth. [1: The Work Surveillance Project of the Privacy Foundation is used to monitor email surveillance by businesses and information provided by the UNDOC website.] [2: The Electronic Monitoring and Survey is conducted by the American Management Association to find out the statistics of surveillance methods used by organizations.]

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The motivations and application of IT in employee monitoring

Different organizations use different methods of electronic employee monitoring (EEM). According to Weckert (2005) some of the main motivations include the reduction of prices of the applicable software, increased need for internet use in the workplace, the ability to conceal surveillance information from the employees, and the belief that monitoring leads to more effective employees. A survey conducted by the American Management Association (AMA) established that: 47% of employers used EEM to keep track of emails, 68% to monitor how the internet is used, 60% for security reasons, and 68% to avoid illegal activities (Papini, 2007). This suggests that the other motivations for employee monitoring and surveillance are: to improve employee’s performance, to avoid wastage of time on non-work related activities, to avoid illegal activities that may be carried out without the management’s knowledge, and to avoid transfer of confidential and valuable company information to third parties.

Software packages, such as LittleBrother[footnoteRef:3] are used. What LittleBrother does is that it makes use of databases which classify all employees’ activities as either productive or unproductive, depending on the websites visited and the browsing sessions. Using such packages, the organization is able to identify individuals who mostly visit unproductive sites, how frequently they use them, and at what times of the day. Employers can also use CCTV cameras to monitor hourly movements and to gauge how idle or busy employees are. In customer service, calls are recorded to assess the quality of the conversations, which will help in improving the performance and to facilitate better feedback and interactions with customers. Sometimes, emails activities are monitored, which is advantageous because illegal activities can be identified, the spread of rumors or wrong information avoided, and disrespect to both colleagues and the management nipped in the bud. [3: Little Brother is one of the most popular software packages used for employee monitoring]

The impact of employee monitoring on the organization and the employees

Employers are the biggest beneficiaries of EEM. They are able to reduce wastage of time and resources to improve employee performance and to assert their authority. This is in agreement with Stanton and Stam (2006), that “monitoring and enforcement enable conformity with the behavioral rules of the organization.” The costs associated with lost work time are also reduced significantly when surveillance and monitoring technology is used. Stanton and Stam explain that employees hold the success of the organization in their hands, which is compromised once company information is mishandled and the resources misused.

Despite the numerous benefits to the organization, employee monitoring has the opposite effect on the employees. Westin (as cited by Papini, 2007) found out those employees who were monitored electronically lost trust in the organization. They work under a lot of pressure when they know they are being surveyed, and they may also conclude that the organization is not confident in their abilities. Stanton and Stam (2006) also state that trust between an organization and its employees is a form of organizational contract. When this level of trust will is breached, it will lead to disgruntled employees, which certainly translate to incompetence and decreased productivity in the long-run.

The ethical implications of the use of IT in employee monitoring

Majority of employees consider EEM an invasion of their privacy. Employees have their own opinions of how information that concerns them should be handled and dispensed, and the limit of the organization’s interference in their private affairs (Papini, 2007). When organizations violate this privacy, they may find out personal information about the employees that may influence the decisions they make. Employees also believe they are the only ones who should read emails addressed in their names. However, employers feel differently about the issue and they believe that unmonitored employees are less effective and if they are not engaged in unproductive activities, they have nothing to be worried about anyway. Employers often feel that so long as employees are aware the emails are being read, it is not a violation of their privacy at all.

Stanton and Stam (2006) claim that the degree of privacy deemed appropriate is different for both employers and employees. Some employees have resorted to suing their employers for invasion of privacy. Legislation is one solution that finds a middle ground and specifies the extent to which information in an organization is considered private. Ethical solutions to this problem also apply and they mostly point towards the consideration of both parties’ interests and concerns. According to Weckert (2005), employees are allowed a certain level of monitoring as long as it is not illegal, it meets the necessary standards, and is aimed at achieving good goals, which is only possible if some rights are infringed. Therefore, organization have to agree with the employees on the extent of surveillance and monitoring that is appropriate, and employees have to give their consent as it has been proven that use of personal resources for personal, illegal, and time wasting activities is frequent in the workplace and it negatively affects productivity.


The use of IT in employee monitoring may have its benefits but in order for it not to compromise the employers’ relationships with employees, technical, informal and formal controls should be used effectively to create good working and regulatory environments in the workplace. They key is for both the organizations and employees to maintain high levels of integrity and honesty. Only then can the impact of technology be positive and amount to substantial benefits for all who use it. From an ethical point-of-view, employers should not misuse EEM just because it is legal. On the other hand, just because employees are entrusted with the company resources does not make it right for them to extend their use to personal activities such as online shopping, accessing social networks, and other non-work related activities. Both parties should apply Immanuel Kant’s theory that maintains that each individual has a level of dignity or a sense of worth that needs to be accorded respect at all times.


Papini, J.S. (2007). Big Brother: The Effect of Electronic Employee Monitoring on Electronic Misbehavior, Job Satisfaction and Organiozational Commitment. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest Information and Learning Company

Stanton, J.M. & Stam, K.R. (2006) The Visible Employee: Using Workplace Monitoring and Surveillance to Protect Information Assets-Without Compromising Employee Privacy or Trust. New Jersey: Information Today, Inc.

Weckert, J. (2005). Electronic Monitoring in the Workplace: Controversies and Solutions. Heyshey, PA: Idea Group Publishing

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