Should Managers Monitor Employee Email & Internet Usage?

by Fraser Sherman; Updated September 26, 2017

Almost three-quarters of American businesses check up on what their employees do online. Supporters of monitoring say the practice is necessary to prevent workplace harassment and increase worker efficiency. Critics say the practice is intrusive, unfair and bad for morale. Many people on both sides agree, however, that employers should have a written policy spelling out their position and should communicate it clearly to their employees.


One reason given for monitoring employee Internet use is that, if you're on the company clock, you should be doing productive work, Miriam Schulman of Santa Clara University says. Another is that it enables employers to catch workers who send racist emails, browse pornographic sites and engage in sexual harassment online. Companies that don't take action in such situations can be held liable if the harassed employee sues, so monitoring makes good sense.


Some critics of monitoring, Schulman says, believe that if employers can't trust employees to do their work, that indicates a serious dysfunction at the company. Another objection is that sending an occasional personal email on company time isn't unreasonable, and that employers have no more right to see what's in it than if they steamed open personal letters. A third issue is fairness: Low-level employees with little power will be watched closely, but executives don't usually have their Internet use supervised.


The key case in employee monitoring was Smyth. v. the Pillsbury Company in the mid-1990s. Charles Muhl says in "Monthly Labor Review." Pillsbury fired Smyth for sending emails that allegedly included threats to his coworkers. The court decision finding for Pillsbury stated that Smyth had no right of privacy at work. Courts generally have followed that principle since, with exceptions. A New Jersey court, for instance, ruled that an employee's emails to her lawyer were protected by attorney-client confidentiality.


If a company wants to monitor its staff, it should have an official policy for monitoring and make employees aware of the rules, the Nolo legal website states. It should also focus on monitoring for valid reasons -- checking productivity, preventing harassment -- rather than trying to monitor everything employees do online. Excessive monitoring, even if legal, will alienate employees and also require their supervisors to spend more work time than necessary tracking Internet use.

About the Author

A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.

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