When Does Employee Monitoring Go Too Far?

Employee monitoring is a hot button issue in today’s social climate. Businesses administrators are forced to toe a line that veers between protecting the company’s assets and infringing on the rights of its employees. Many implement video and audio recording devices in the workplace, monitor calls and employee conversations, screen employee’s internet usage, require strict time-keeping, and occasionally search employee property. Most of these employee monitoring methods are practically unregulated.

And with how society has adapted to technology and social media, it’s abundantly easy to know someone before you’ve even met them. Indeed, a majority of businesses admit to scouring social media sites on potential hires and current employees.

How far is too far?

While employers generally have a great license over employees to monitor their behavior at work, there are some practices with risky legal implications. Below, I take several common employee surveillance practices and judge each by their legality and usefulness:

Video monitoring

Having security cameras installed is a tried-and-true way to deter crime and catch it when it happens. Advances in tamper-proof, durable camera technology make video monitoring a valuable asset in defending your workplace. And it is ethical − for the most part. Obviously, avoid placing recording devices in any invasive areas, like bathrooms or locker rooms. Also beware that cameras that capture audio might be subject to wiretapping laws.

Monitoring calls

It’s legal without any kind of notification to your employees, unless you live in California. Still, many businesses notify both parties of a call when a conversation is being recorded in order to avoid seeming invasive later on. Although strictly monitoring business-related calls would seem to be the impetus of this kind of scrutiny, any call can be monitored made on a business line. In fact, employers can freely obtain phone records on your calls. Of course, searching personal mobile phones is not as legally (or practically) justified.

Screening employee’s computer usage

Checking for employees’ usage on company-owned computers is completely fair. Employers are not legally obligated to tell employees when monitoring is taking place, but many choose to in order to create a more transparent and responsible work environment. Actually watching an employee’s monitor has no legal ramifications.  However, monitoring employees out of work is a gray area with legal implications.

Choosing to fire or otherwise discipline an employee based on their activity on social media networks while outside of work is illegal in several states − unless they break a company policy. Computer monitoring can be a productive form of surveillance, but transparency and a strong company policy are highly advised to avoid legal complications or damage to your company’s reputation.

Searching Employee Property

Private companies have a right to monitor how their employees manage company resources, and this understandably includes work areas and storage spaces − such as employee lockers. A storage locker provided by a business is strictly their property; employers do not need a search warrant to investigate employee property contained at work as long as there is reasonable justification.

Like call and computer monitoring, investigating the property of employees is an important method of making sure that the company’s resources are being used appropriately. And like those methods of surveillance, the best route is transparency in order to avoid alienating the workplace or creating controversy.

Personal Searches

Few methods of employee monitoring can disturb a workforce more than personal searches in the workplace. Indiscriminate searches are unconstitutional, and it’s highly advisable that other forms of surveillance are in place before a search is necessary since you may need evidence later in a court of law to justify your search.

Exceptions may exist, such as a certain stipulation of company policy that lies within legal bounds. Searches are also justifiable if anything valuable or of a sensitive nature has gone missing. But the invasive impact of a random personal search is damaging enough to employee morale that is should only be considered as a last resort – if at all.



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