Everyone knows that it’s a bad idea to complain about your boss on your company email, but most people have no idea the extent to which employers monitor them on a daily basis. These days, companies keep close tabs on how their employees spend the workday -- from the websites they visit to the phone calls they make. And there’s not much employees can do about it.
The only real way you can maintain a semblance of privacy is to be aware of how and why your employer is monitoring you and plan accordingly.
A full 60 to 80 percent of employees’ time spent on the Internet at work is unrelated to their actual job.
2013 Kansas State University study
Why Are Employers Monitoring You?
From McDonald’s to Bank of America, nearly every company includes in their handbook or orientation a signed agreement that they will be monitoring their employees in some way. “Monitoring software is meant as a backup for employers to ensure employees are doing their jobs and not being distracted,” Edward M. Kwang, the president of productivity measurement solution company MySammy, told AOL.
Employers have good reason to be concerned about productivity. According to a 2013 Kansas State University study, 60 to 80 percent of employees’ time spent on the Internet at work is unrelated to their actual job.
Companies also monitor their employees’ work habits to prevent legal issues. “Concern over litigation and the role electronic evidence plays in lawsuits and regulatory investigations has spurred more employers to monitor online activity,” Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute, told AOL. According to a 2009 American Management Association (AMA) ePolicy survey, one percent of employers say they’ve gone to court for lawsuits regarding employee emails, while 2 percent of employers were required to turn over employee instant messages to the courts -- twice as many as in 2006.
Companies are also concerned about employees mishandling company information or engaging in risque behavior, experts say. They should be: Fourteen percent of employees surveyed admitted to e-mailing confidential information about their company to outside parties and 9 percent have used company email to transmit sexual, pornographic or romantic content, according to the AMA survey.
To prevent inappropriate Internet usage during work hours, 66 percent of companies monitor Internet connections -- meaning they monitor when you're logging on and off and what sites you visit -- while 65 percent use software to block inappropriate websites, according to a 2007 Electronic Monitoring & Surveillance Survey by the AMA and the ePolicy Institute. Those companies that block websites are generally concerned with adult content, gaming, social networking, entertainment, sports, and shopping.
“Generally speaking, bigger organizations control the websites employees can visit at the network level,” Kwang says. “On the other hand, smaller organizations tend to choose to monitor their employees’ online activities rather than outright blocking sites.”
Most companies have written policies that say they can monitor your email, including personal email sent on company computers. The Electronic Communication Privacy Act limits this, but says that as long as employers include consent forms in employee handbooks, it’s allowed.
According to the AMA study, nearly half of all employers monitor and store computer files and emails. Of those companies, 73 percent utilize programs to automatically sift through employee emails, while 40 percent hire someone specifically to review employee emails.
“A classic mistake is thinking that changing to your personal account buys you any privacy,” says Lewis Maltby, author of the office rights book “Can They Do That?” “If you send an email out, it goes through your company server. If they’re monitoring email, the personal e-mail gets monitored just like the business email.” In other words, nothing you do on a work computer is private -- nothing.
Employers also use keylogging programs that record workers’ keystrokes in order to track productivity. The 2007 AMA study found that 45 percent of employers install keylogging programs, which gives them access to everything workers type, including their passwords. The Stored Communication Act and Federal Wiretap Act offers limited protection to employee privacy, but employers generally get away with it.
Social Media Monitoring
Companies have also caught wind of that little trend called social media, and most include a social media policy in their employee handbooks, which many people merely gloss over when they’re hired. The 2007 AMA report indicated that 12 percent of companies monitor employee comments about the company on blogs and message boards, and another 10 percent monitor social networking sites.
Some workplaces have even required potential hires to turn over their social media passwords to be vetted, although the practice has been banned in some states.
Everyone’s called up a company to hear “this call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes,” and in many cases, employee phone recording is simply for customer service, which is permitted under the federal wiretap laws.
In most states, companies are permitted to record employee phone conversations, as long as one party consents. And chances are, there’s a consent form in the employee handbook. According to the AMA study, 45 percent of companies also monitor phone usage and numbers called, while 16 percent record phone conversations. Another 9 percent monitor voice mail messages.
Surprisingly, video recording tends to be the least invasive form of employee observation. The AMA report found that 48 percent of companies surveyed use video monitoring to prevent theft, violence and sabotage, while only 7 percent use video to track employees’ time management.
Video surveillance really depends on the industry, explains Todd Frederickson, managing partner of the Denver office of labor and employment firm Fisher & Phillips. “A more limited number of employers use video surveillance -- typically, employers with wholesale or retail goods or where safety and security are a particular issue.”
You may think checking Facebook at work is an innocent offense, but there are serious consequences to wasting company time and money. The AMA study found that 28 percent of employers have fired employees for email misuse, and 30 percent have fired workers for inappropriate Internet usage. Six percent of employers said they have fired workers for misuse or private use of company phones.
Luckily, employers are generally just storing information in case of legal issues and only reference it should a dispute arise. Says Frederickson: “In most cases employers have neither the time nor the money to continually monitor what employers are doing on computers.”
What Can You Do to Protect Yourself?
There isn’t really much employees can do about their companies monitoring them, as the law is generally on the employer's side.
“Federal law gives employers the legal right to monitor all computer activity,” Flynn says. “The computer system is the property of the employer, and the employee has absolutely no reasonable expectations of privacy when using that system.”
The bottom line is, if you're using a company device, don't expect any privacy. That's why many employees have begun using personal devices such as smartphones and tablets to engage in non-work-related Internet use during the workday.
Joanna Sloame has been a professional writer since 2008. She works with ABC Media as the digital media coordinator for "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" Sloame has also served as an online editor for the "New York Daily News" and written for Forbes.com and The Jewish Virtual Library. She holds a B.A. in history and creative writing from Columbia University.