Monitoring Employee Internet Use—Where to Draw the Line With Privacy
By National Federation of Independent Business
We’ve all done it. We start reading a website during lunch and before we know it, it’s 2 p.m.—a good part of the workday has been spent on the Internet. Even the boss gets carried away from time to time, says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute in Princeton, N.J. That’s why it’s a good idea to be reasonable when monitoring your employee’s Internet use at work.
Here are five things you should know about employees’ rights when monitoring their time online.
Your rights as an employer stretch far and wide. When it comes to using company computers, company Internet access or anything transmitted over your company servers, employees should not expect any right to privacy. Any websites they visit or emails they send—from personal or work accounts—are subject to your monitoring. Even employees who log on to your business’ network from home or elsewhere are subjecting their activity to your monitoring. Employees using company laptops at home should also know their activity can be logged once they’re reconnected to the company server. What’s more, you are not legally obligated to inform employees that their Internet use is being monitored at work. However, employers do not have the right to monitor an employee’s Internet use from home when they’re not using company-owned property.
You have less leeway with mobile devices—even if your company pays for them. Mobile devices are presenting new problems for employers, Maltby says, because the information transmitted over email and Web use is not stored on your company’s servers. It’s stored on the wireless carrier’s servers. Based on legal precedent from cases relating to Internet monitoring, information stored with a third party is almost impossible for employers to obtain.
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. In theory, a lot of work time can be wasted on writing personal email, booking travel plans, reading news and otherwise whiling the day away online. But it’s best to stay reasonable when restricting access to these websites, says Maltby. “What are you going to say to an employee who, when working late to finish a project, wants to take a five-minute break to surf the Web?” he says. Instead, consider tapping into an employee’s email or Web history only when something is awry, like the employee’s quality or quantity of work has deteriorated. “If the employee is doing a good job, don’t spend time looking for a problem,” says Maltby.
Choose the monitoring that’s right for you, and your employees. If, as a business owner, you are concerned that your employees’ Internet surfing is affecting the bottom line, consider installing monitoring software that has sophisticated options. For example, an option that only restricts access to certain websites between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. (or your normal business hours). Or an option that opens up access to any website during lunch hour, but at 1 p.m. the wall goes back up. Another option can limit time on certain time-suck websites (like Facebook) to only 20 minutes a day per person. The software can be tailored to each employee.
Don’t forget to monitor the monitors. Even though your employees should not expect a right to privacy when using the Internet at work, your operations manager, IT department—whoever is watching the usage—must tread carefully when reading employees’ personal emails and such. “Employees get upset when they realize the folks in IT can read other people’s email for fun,” says Maltby. Make sure the monitors are acting professionally, and in the interest of the company, at all times.