Executive Committee Recommendation for Monitoring Employee Online Activity

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Purpose of the Report

The purpose of this report is to explore, explain and justify the need for thorough but prudent monitoring of employees and their activities online. This would include tasks and activities that are directly related to job performance and quality control as well as activities that are not related to work executed and conducted both on the clock and off the clock by employees. Most monitoring of employees is easily justifiable and need not be apologized for or otherwise explained away. However, there can be some limitations or at least controversies to this behavior and this is especially true when speaking of applicant behavior prior to joining this firm. It has gotten to the point that no less than the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has tried to put limitations on the use of public record and inarguable criminal offense histories as a means to disqualify or even a fire an employee and this is despite the fact that hiring verifiable criminals can lead to negligent hiring lawsuit by the EEOC and/or the employees hurt financially, mentally or physically by a negligent hire.

Regardless, Acme Corporation does have tools in the proverbial toolbox that will allow them to legally and ethically do the monitoring that needs to be done while at the same time not blind-siding employees who for some reason feel that they can conduct personal business and affairs on company equipment with an ultimate expectation of privacy and/or without limitation. The types of activities that are engaged in on company computers should not manifest in certain types or durations lest it becomes a drain on company resources including the wasting of data internet and intranet data bandwidth, hourly wages, turnaround time with clients, virus/malware issues and so forth. An occasional amount of personal business is fine and micromanaging employees to excess is excessive and unwise but adopting a laissez faire approach is lunacy and for a number of reasons.

Background of the Company

Acme has established itself as an Internet powerhouse in the northeastern United States through its robust offerings of home goods, décor and home accessory options. Often dubbed the Amazon.com of home décor accoutrements in the Northeastern United States, Acme is on strong upward arc and stands to have a solid business foundation for quite some time barring a massive shift in trajectory. Founded in 1995, Acme has always had high customer service quality scores, low error rates and high customer satisfaction. However, the performance and arc of the company has started to plateau over recent years as the regional and national marketplace has become much more crowded in the last five to ten years and distracted and/or careless employees are causing more and more of a drain on productivity and bandwidth. The increasingly insidious nature of competitors and other firms that are not Acme fans has not helped either.

That all being said, Acme still remains in a positive place as a regional power and is on the cusp of becoming a more national player due to its online presence and sterling reputation with just about anyone who has done business with Acme in the recent years. As Acme adds more and more product offerings and as they are able to expand their advertising reach on social media and the Internet, Acme will soon enough be on the same online retail pedestal as Wayfair, Wal-Mart.com and Amazon. However, a serious commitment to quality and training/discipline of employees will be necessary to keep Acme on the straight and narrow and thus allow Acme to realize what it is capable of doing over the long term. Companies constantly face the need to “evolve or die” and liability incurred due to careless, mischievous or amoral employee actions and behaviors will lead to Acme getting a public relations broadsides if not a legal and/or financial one at the same time. It is indeed a double-edge sword to Acme and both sides of the proverbial blade are razor-sharp.

Discussion of Current Business Issues

As noted in the company history and status sections of this report, customer care quality and productivity has started to take a hit and the primary reason for this is the online behavior of some of Acme’s employees. These losses, as noted in the justification for the report, stem from loss of data bandwidth, loss of spent on the clock and working on company business, mishaps due to employees being distracted, compromising security systems via outside phishing attempts, computers contracting malware and/or viruses due to prohibited or at least unwise internet activity and so forth. There will sometimes be times of the day or night where staffing is necessary to keep people at ready even if they mostly sit on their hands. In such an instance, an occasional check of the sport scores, a personal Gmail account or the news is not a big deal. However, there are some proverbial “red lines” that should never be crossed. Increasingly, however, Acme employees are doing exactly that and it needs to be curbed right away.

When work is needed to be done and someone is available to do it, that should be the first and main thing done. When work is slow, remaining ready but casual is fine and regular internet surfing is fine. However, there have been issues with employees navigating to porn sites, employees viewing webpages that are on the bleeding edge of being indecent such as tabloid/gossip sites, navigation to sites that are pervasively filled with malware and virus threats, installation of programs that should not be on company computers for any reason including games and unlicensed/illegal software copies, navigation to bandwidth-vacuum video sites like YouTube and others and the list goes on.

Something else that is occurring is that employee privacy is often butting heads with the need to monitor and assess what is being done online by employees. As a matter of right and the idea of keeping tabs on what employees are doing online when they do not think they should or are being watched, it has been found that employees are engaging in some very questionable online and/or phone conversations, are making personal long distance calls from company phones, are sometimes even visiting online gambling sites and are even disparaging and bad-mouthing Acme on online message forums under assumed names and/or to family members and friends. It is quite clear that employee monitoring and the discipline stemming from the same needs to be ramped up. The way this can and should be done will be described in the recommendation section of this report.

Research Findings on the Topic

The research to be made on this topic is a bit of a minefield because a lot of it focuses on degrading and condemning employers for engaging in activities that infringe upon the privacy and supposed well-being of the employees. However, this argument is thankfully not monolithic in the online, research and media community and there are indeed some sources that speak the honest truth, that being that while some firms cross the line and are entirely unfair or too aggressive as it relates to employee activities and monitoring, the employer still has the right and the duty, actually, to keep their employees in check thus protecting both the customer base and the firm itself.

The author of this report singled out six peer-reviewed and/or journal articles that relate to the topic at hand. The first treatise reviewed was authored in 2007 by Friedman and Reed (2007) and it related to employee relations and the legal implications of the monitoring of emails. The primary finding of the study is that while employees are sided with much more than not when it comes litigation and lawsuits, employers need to be careful not to overreach no matter how noble their intentions lest they destroy employee morale and otherwise hassle and degrade the employees through excessive and unneeded monitoring of employees (Friedman & Reed, 2007). Another report, as authored by Determann and Sprauge (2011) noted that monitoring is present but reasonable in Europe but is entirely too over the top in the United States to the point that privacy is “destroyed”. The study notes that there needs to be a common-sense balance and parity between protecting the privacy of employees and the concerns of the firm (Determann & Sprauge, 2011).

Another study notes that the cost of effectively and efficiently monitoring email and online behavior of employees has gone down precipitously over the last few years and this has contributed to the full frontal assault that has been engaged in against employee activities and/or privacy (Buyuk & Keskin, 2012). Indeed, however, the study of employee monitoring and the ensuing effects has been studied at length for roughly two decades with one example of an older study occurring as far back as 1995. That particular study focused on the results and perceptions of employee monitoring in an empirical context. It was known back then that the manifestation and reactions to employer monitoring of employee online behavior varies widely and this can have wide-ranging effects, both good and bad, on the employees’ morale and reactions (George, 1996).

However, the legitimate and proper reasons for monitoring of employee online activity are also assessed in the journal literature of the last few years and decades. One such article focused on whether privacy even exists as it relates to employee emails. However, the other side of that ethical coin is explored and assessed in that it is noted that emails are subject to be subpoenaed by courts and thus employers have a vest interest in knowing what is going on in their digital back yard lest they be surprised to find tawdry or even illegal activities when a lawsuit is lodged against the company (Smith & Tabak, 2009). On a similar note, another study looked at the time spent on non-work related computing (NWRC) and how it affected job performance. It was looked at how much time was spent on offline non-work related activities, time spent on work after working hours and overall time spent on online non-work related activities. The study’s results note clearly that the effects and reactions to non-work activities and the efforts to curb the amount and manifestation of this non-work activity has been mixed and is by no means conclusive (Gee-Woo & Swee Ling, 2009).

Recommendations for the Executive Management Team

The author of this report has a number of recommendations that should be implemented immediately so as to strike a balance between allowing employees the occasional internet fun while at the same time protecting the firm from loss of productivity and/or bandwidth that can actually hurt the firm financially. The first step is to make sure that Acme’s policies and procedures are completely updated and are relevant to the technology and habits of today’s employees and the wider culture. Just as many laws on the books at all jurisdictions are woefully out of date given the events and technologies that have happened or emerged since then, policies that don’t keep things in a modern context need to be updated or sunset.

The first policy avenue that needs to be dealt with is a clear and unflinching ban on any behavior or activity that can lead to lawsuits against employees, the firm or both. This would include hardline bans on the viewing of pornography or any other site that is clearly sexualized and/or explicit in nature, a ban on the visiting of any gambling site, a ban on the releasing of confidential business information and/or the disparaging of Acme on company phones and computers, a ban on use of Acme emails for personal business except for the occasional communication with family or something else benign, a ban on the visiting of social media sites and online video sites and so forth.

Another policy manual update that should occur is a clear stating in no uncertain terms that Acme can and will monitor phone, email and internet activity of employees and that anything that is wished to be kept private should never be done on Acme computers. This should not be a hard pill to swallow given the capabilities of many modern smartphones and online email accounts. An actual policy acknowledgement process should be forced on the employees so that they are made to read these rules and acknowledge that they understand that their activity is being monitored. However, there is a public relations side to this announcement as well. It should be noted that every little visit to MSNBC or Amazon’s website, for example, will not be micro-managed and scrutinized. However, the visiting of certain sites and/or the engagement in certain activities will never be allowed and will be punished for when caught, up to and including the possibility of termination. It should be state the firm is simply trying to protect itself AND its employees by doing this to protect unwitting events of sexual harassment and other illegal activities. Again, given the ubiquity of web-enabled smartphones, it is not that hard to guide people to keep the personal business private and their work business only on work computers.

Another tactic that Acme should use to their advantage is the prevalence of social media information on sites like Facebook and Twitter as a means to screen out employees of questionable character and history. However, this should not be taken too far. Any material that is publicly available or can otherwise legally be gained without any ethical or legal violations should be fair game as far as Acme is concerned, not unlike criminal and credit histories. However, even though there is no laws against what is about to be mentioned, there should be limits. For example, the increasingly common practice of employers demanding the username and password of Facebook accounts from prospective employees is the wrong move. It causes a bad vibe and the personal business of any prospective or current employee is not really a concern of Acme unless it bleeds into the realm of illegal or clearly damaging to Acme. The ban on social media site surfing on Acme time and computers will prevent the unwitting allowance for privacy invasion of use on those sites by employees. They can use those sites on their phones during their down-time or they can wait until they are off-shift.

Another thing that Acme needs to be vigilant, yet careful, about is the way Acme is perceived by the public and the media based on the actions and words of their employees. Employees should be cautioned to not portray Acme in a bad light when they are traversing social media. For example, if an employee is socially or politically controversial, they should probably leave their employer off their profile or they should create separate accounts for personal and company/networking activities. Employees should also understand that if Acme comes under scrutiny due to the behavior they engage in off-work even though they actively try to not involve or invoke Acme as their employer, they can still be punished or even fired if they go too far. For example, the employee extending her middle finger in a Facebook post as Arlington National Cemetery may be protected under the First Amendment but it will not (and should not) prevent the employee from being fired because it portrays the company in a bad light for hiring (or at least retaining) the employee after such an instance goes viral, just as that one did.

On that note, employees should gently be informed, but not beat over the head, with the fact that the First Amendment in no shape, way or form pertains to employer decisions to hire, fire or reprimand employees with the limited exception of government-oriented organizations given that the First Amendment does not protect one’s job but rather just the freedom of most (but not all) limitations on speech by the federal government. Employees should be informed that they are in an “at will” employment situation unless they have a collective bargaining agreement and/or contract that states otherwise and that they can be let go at any time and for any reason unless pertains to something clearly illegal to fire or punish someone for like race, gender, religion and so on. Even a divergence on things as polarizing as gay marriage, drug use and so forth can be grounds for reprimand or termination. Employees are entitled to their opinions, of course, but Acme cannot (and should not have to) defend someone that comes off as ignorant or a bigot.

In short, employees must be made to understand that while the online culture and society is to be embraced, it should also be used with maturity and great care. It is not unreasonable or egregious for employees to expect a modicum of privacy and discretion as it relates to their privacy but employees must also understand that it is not that hard to keep private business private and that employers could do a hard ban on all such business if they so choose. It is not unlike school or parental situations where children/students are allowed to wander son long as they behave but they will be drawn back in if they stray too far.

Conclusion

If there is a main point to draw from this report, it would be that Acme can and should monitor the activities of employees but they should put employees on notice as to what will or could occur and not be too aggressive with the enforcement of policies unless the non-work activity is immoral, illegal or excessive. Prudence and discretion should be the natural order of things so long as activities are harmless and/or not a drain on the performance of the employees or Acme at large. Employees should not live in fear for their jobs but they should also not be careless or incendiary towards Acme with their actions or inactions. As with most things, either extreme is wrong and should be avoided.

References

Büyük, K., & Keskin, U. (2012). Panopticon's Electronic Resurrection: Workplace Monitoring as an Ethical Problem. Turkish Journal of Business Ethics, 5(10), 75-88.

Determann, L., & Sprague, R. (2011). Intrusive monitoring: Employee privacy expectations are reasonable in Europe, destroyed in the United States. Berkeley Technology Law Journal,26(2), 979-1036.

Friedman, B., & Reed, L. (2007). Workplace Privacy: Employee Relations and LegalImplications of Monitoring Employee E-mail Use. Employee Responsibilities & RightsJournal, 19(2), 75-83. doi:10.1007/s10672-007-9035-1

Gee-Woo, B., & Swee Ling, H. (2009). Non-work related computing (NWRC). Communications of the ACM, 52(4), 124-128.

George, J. F. (1996). Computer-Based Monitoring: Common Perceptions and Empirical Results.MIS Quarterly, 20(4), 459-480.

Smith, W. P., & Tabak, F. (2009). Monitoring Employee E-mails: Is There Any Room forPrivacy? Academy of Management Perspectives, 23(4), 33-48.doi:10.5465/AMP.2009.45590139