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Electronic Privacy in the Workplace Research Paper


Introduction of the internet has brought a host of changes especially in the manner in which information flows from one point to another. At a click of the mouse, one is able to connect with the world and share any kind of information. Coupled with social networks, these connections further expose personal information that could be accessed by unauthorized people.

Besides promoting business management, the current technology allows employers to monitor their employees and even access their private data, raising concerns over information security of such people. Is it lawful for employers to monitor employees? Is there law that governs employee privacy?

This research paper explores the issue of employee privacy, detailing among others, workplace surveillance, reasons for surveillance, findings against surveillance, related cases, dilemma and the way forward.

Workplace surveillance

Surveillance is defined as the ability of the management to track, monitor and record personal characteristics, performance and overall behavior of all or some employees at a specific time or as a continuous management process. According to Ball 2010, workplace surveillance mainly occurs as a way of limiting the accessibility of different hierarchies within an organization and to the business or organization itself (p. 88).

Notably, this topic has remained debatable within the public domain since 1980s. Throughout this time, there are several researches that have been carried out to ascertain the impact of monitoring employees with regard to their behavior and personal information accessibility (Ball, 2010).

Although surveillance and monitoring have been used interchangeably to mean the same thing by the public, organizational sociologists believe that surveillance is intertwined with politics, power and resistance while monitoring is associated with only direct supervision by the employer.

However, the main concern has been the manner in which monitoring is applied in organizational management as it may have detrimental impact on the business (Ball, 2010). As insinuated above, surveillance at workplace may seek to discover personal information or particular behavior among employees.

As a result, information collected through different surveillance methods is usually used in different ways. For instance, an employer may make conclusions about the performance of an employer, which may have impact both at workplace and outside (Luragesi, 2010).

In order to carry out effective workplace surveillance, there are several techniques which have been found to be effective in allowing managers to access employees’ private information and monitor their behavior while they are working. These include but not limited to mystery shopping, mobility tracking, CCTV, computer and telephone logging, and electronic recruitment (Ball, 2010).

These techniques are commonly applied in service industries although other industries like manufacturing do monitor employees at workplaces. With no doubt, massive use of these surveillance techniques has been augmented by rise in internet usage around the globe with an approximated 27 million employees being monitored in the world.

Low resistance to these practices is common in gabling, logistics and contact-center industries where there are no unions to sensitize and advocate for employee privacy (Luragesi, 2010). In general workplace surveillance can be viewed from two perspectives. It is believed to be a normal practice as employees expect a review of their performance, whereabouts and set objectives. On the other hand, extreme usage raises controversies.

From the employee’s perspective

While there is support for surveillance in some places of work, the magnitude and overall impact of such approaches on organizational management remains a major point of concern (Ball, 2010). It is true that workplace surveillance is important in productivity and asset management, keeping business secrets and guarding against legal liabilities.

However, excessive and unnecessary surveillance has a wide range of effects on employees. The first concern is that surveillance heightens the risk of privacy compromise when a third party is allowed to handle employees’ private information. In some cases, employees may feel threatened especially when information about their physical whereabouts is exposed to their employers (Ball, 2010).

Another argument against workplace surveillance is that it may lead to “functional creep”. (Ball, 2010).The reason behind this postulate is the fact that some surveillance technologies may reveal too much information that could be unnecessary. In other words, it is possible to employ certain methods of employee monitoring and collect unintended information.

In this regard, it is important for employers to avoid extending surveillance practices to such levels without seeking approval and consent of respective employees. This is quite essential especially in cases where the information being sought is to form a decision making basis like promotion and pay-rise (Ball, 2010).

Additionally, the use of surveillance may lead to “faking” of behavior and character among employees. When a person discovers that he or she is being monitored, there is usually a higher tendency of behavior camouflage so as not to reveal what the “monitor” could be looking for.

Depending on the nature of the surveillance technique, quantity versus quality of work done may be a point of concern among employees and the benefits of working as a team compared to individual efforts (Ball, 2010). This may breed “anticipatory conformity” as employees may become docile and less commitment to their tasks.

Apart from these reasons, surveillance usually puts employer’s trust at risk especially when the process is not carried out in a participatory manner. Lastly, excessive surveillance may contribute to the emergence of behaviors and practices that were to be controlled. This is because employees tend to subvert these efforts through manipulation of the time and way of measuring surveillance boundaries.

Some of these manipulative ways may include brief answers to customers, pretence and misleading customers by giving irrelevant and incorrect information. Furthermore, monitored call-center workers may conspire with other workers to generate required information (Ball, 2010).

From the employer’s perspective

A common form of surveillance mentioned above is e-mail monitoring, which seems tiresome but effective to several employers. First, employers believe that monitoring of employees has full capacity to reduce legal liabilities in an organization.

As a known effective and cheap way of communicating through the internet, e-mails offer an opportunity for employees to share messages which may be deemed as damaging to the employer or another third party (Snyder, 2010). In such cases, employers are held legally responsible for any form of damage that may arise from these e-mails.

This risk can be avoided by monitoring various messages sent by employees to other people. An employer who fails to prevent such misconduct out of ignorance or lack of information is always liable for the incurred damages (Smith & Tabak, 2009).

Another view for workplace surveillance is that it allows a company to protect its assets. The first concern over company property is that some e-mails may undermine the intellectual property of a company and other assets that are not tangible.

For instance, e-mail messaging may allow a customer to attach sensitive information about the firm, say, patenting information, pricing decisions, customer records, trading secretes and other sensitive information. It therefore suffices to mention that efforts by any firm to prevent the spread of such information are vital in safeguarding the interests of the company (Smith & Tabak, 2009).

Additionally, tracking of e-mails allows employers to manage effective use and application of several network resources. Due to bulky e-mails, certain network systems may be unable to handle the existing traffic. This monitoring therefore prevents overstressing of the company’s network by people who are unauthorized and add no value to the success of a firm.

Moreover, virulent messages are common when e-mails are used to perform other duties apart from the known work. Apart from damaging computers, virulent messages and links also compromise the security of the firm. Since the available equipment was acquired to perform certain duties, it is important for employers to guard against any form of careless communication (Smith & Tabak, 2009).

Lastly, employers affirm that monitoring of employee emails promotes high productivity for any firm. It is believed that most employers take this step towards the prevention of loss of productivity perpetuated by excessive sending of e-mails (Smith & Tabak, 2009).

Even though email monitoring has the potential of adding value to ones business, analysts argue that excessive motoring can promote the reverse process towards productivity. With the use of e-mails having become highly prolific, some employers limit e-mail accessibility among employees until their addresses are vetted and approved by the person in charge (Snyder, 2010).

Potential solutions to the dilemma

In finding a solution towards the dilemma which exists between employers and employees over workplace surveillance, it is important to double emphasize the fact that most of the negative effects enumerated by psychologists and other theorists focus on the manner in which the process is carried out. A balance between work and managers’ involvement in surveillance affects productivity in different ways.

Additionally, organizational characteristics can determine the ultimate impact of implementing workplace surveillance strategies. Aspects of design generally tell the availability of choices to employees with regard to time and pace of assigned duties and responsibilities (Ball, 2010). Constant surveillance is considered more harmful to employees than intermittent approach.

Furthermore, there has to be a correlation between the task and the surveillance technique being employed. As such, easy tasks require easy monitoring practices and vice versa. Group surveillance is also less stressful compared to cases where employees are monitored singly. Nevertheless, this has to be done by sensitive individuals who have a psychological concern over the impact of surveillance.

Another important solution towards the dilemma is adopting a supervisory style and observing performance fluctuations. It has been found out that rating of employees based on monitored figures dictates the mind and future decisions made by employers. In other words, monitored results implant a negative attitude that later affects employers’ management skills (Ball, 2010).

As a response towards negative employer attitude, most workers resort to resistance as the only option of retaliating. It is therefore important for employers to be considerate and appreciate the fact that employees may want to mingle with those under constant surveillance.

In making surveillance more acceptable and relevant, it has to be balanced with several factors that promote feedback like coaching and appraisal. Heavy workload done under surveillance generates low output as it results into stress and inability to achieve expected results (Ball, 2010). Additionally, punishment for those who perform below required standards may not always work in promoting performance potential of employees.

Correction to committed mistakes is essential in ensuring that employees understand relevant steps other than daily monitoring. The monitoring criteria should also be well communicated to employees through training to allow them meet their set goals with a lot of ease.

Employees should also be involved in the designing of monitoring systems. This makes them acceptable with the organization and promtes the understanding of the need for monitored information together with how it is stored (Ball, 2010).

Keeping the trust between employer and employee

Trust is a very important ingredient in effective management at any given level of hierarchy. It therefore follows that lack of trust can be detrimental in an organization. In understanding the concept of trust, it is important to underscore the significance of establishing job-related relationships (Ball, 2010).

In other words, trust stems from well nurtured relationships between employers and employees of a particular organization. Attaining set goals and objectives could be an uphill task if employers do not focus on establishing solid relationships that are well rooted on trust. Trust paves way for other progressive developments to take place in an organizational setup.

There are factors which can affect employer-employee trust. For instance, most employees become suspicious in the wake of downsizing of an organization’s workforce. Since none of the employees could be sure of retaining their posts, many become suspicious about the management, resulting into loss of trust.

Threats also contribute to this situation as employees end up feeling insecure working in a particular organization due to strained relationships. In the context of employee privacy, trust is a major point of concern.

This is because surveillance has the capability of limiting the existence of trust between employees and employers in a given organization (Ball, 2010). How would an employee feel if he or she learned one morning that the boss was tracking his/her behavior and character?

This would definitely result into mistrust and demoralization. As mentioned above, surveillance may send varying messages to different people including lack of trust.

Based on the significance of trust in business management, no manager would be willing to nurture strained relationships with employees. Clarity of thought and communication have to dominate in integrating employee privacy and trust. Monitoring has to be part of the process of strengthening good management relationships rocked on trust (Ball, 2010).

By communicating the need of particular information, employees are able to relate with managers freely without the fear of being tracked. Through trust, employers can talk and learn common things about their employees without necessarily employing surveillance techniques.

When employers are employed in the designing of a monitoring system, they become more confident to not only interact with colleagues but also with senior management. In general workplace monitoring can either maintain of “kill” the trust between employers and employees in an organization.

Cases and rulings

Ontario v. Quon

This refers to a United States Supreme Court case revolving around the issue of right of privacy and its application to a government workplace that utilizes electronic communication gadgets (Harding, 2010). The appeal was filed by the city of Ontario which came from a Ninth Circuit verdict arguing that it had breached the provisions of the Fourth Amendment Act of the U.S constitution.

It was noted that two police officers had been denied these rights when the city punished them after pager text messages were audited, revealing personal and sexually offensive information.

However, the court ruled that the audit in question had been carried out within the context of work and therefore did not infringe the provisions of the 4th amendment that outlaws unreasonable searches and seizures by government officials or law enforcing agents (Harding, 2010).

Jeff Quon, a police sergeant officer in Ontario, colleagues and the other people with whom they were found exchanging the messages with had gone ahead and sued the city and pager service providers arguing that the accused had violated both their rights embedded in the supreme law of the land together with an infringement on federal telecommunications laws that govern privacy.

According to the defense team of the complainant, there had been an agreement between senior officers who had assured them that the text pager would not be put under scrutiny as long as the police officers paid back the fees for extra characters in every month (Harding, 2010).

The case was decided based on the reasonableness of the audit, with Justice Anthony Kennedy noting that modern technology was under evolution and therefore he did not consider the implication of underlying issues in the case (Harding, 2010).

This decision was however criticized by other justices who argued that the court had not honored the provisions of the 4th Amendment in its ruling. Quon’s decision was expected based on implications of issues that involve employee privacy.

This left room for employers and employees to reevaluate parameters needed in workplace surveillance. It gave managers an opportunity to train employees regarding electronic sources and equipment in the context of privacy rights (Harding, 2010).

Employee privacy rights in social networks

Social networks have become common in communication across the world. With the emergence of sites like Twitter, MySpace and Facebook among others, many people are at risk of exposing their information to unauthorized individuals.

Besides this, there are privacy implications especially when online social networks are discussed in the context of workplace surveillance (Genova, 2009). Many employers have genuine business interests which make them monitor the use of the internet at work place. Among these reasons are: minimization of potential legal exposure, prevent loss of proprietary information and increase business productivity.

However, there are numerous employers supporting termination, discipline and failure to hire as a result of employers being present on social networks.

With regard to hiring, there are cases where employers have rejected certain candidates for hire based on online information. No federal law restricts employers from viewing employees’ private information online (Genova, 2009). Moreover, employers have no right to hack employees’ account to access protected information.

Search of online private information is also unwise during hiring unless it is legitimate for the interests of the organization. The California law protects its citizens against privacy infringement of any nature. As a result, employers digging into employees’ privacy after working hours violate these rights and might be accused in a court of law for privacy infringement (Genova, 2009).


Employee privacy presents a wide range of fascinating issues which revolve around massive advancement in technology. With internet connection, access to private information of employees has become a major point of concern that has to be addressed.

Nevertheless, in dealing with issues of surveillance and monitoring of employees, managers ought to be aware of its implications and detrimental effects it may have on the prosperity of a business.

Although there could be legitimate reasons to monitor employees, this has to be done in the most acceptable and trusted way. Employees have to be involved in the designing of the monitoring system to enhance inclusivity and trust between employers and employers.


Ball, K. (2010). Workplace Surveillance: an overview. Labor History, 51(1), 87-106.

Genova, G. (2009). No Place to play: Current employee privacy Rights in Social Networking Sites. Business Communication Quarterly, 97-103.

Harding, J. (2010). City of ontario v. Quon: Electronic privacy in the Workplace. Newsletters, 112-117.

Luragesi, N. (2010). Electronic Privacy in the workplace: Transparency and responsibility. International Review of Law, Computes & Technology, 24(2), 163-173.

Smith, W., & Tabak, F. (2009). Monitoring Employee E-mails: Is there Any Room for Privacy? Academy of Management, 33-48.

Snyder, J. (2010). E-mail Privacy in workplace. A boundary Regulation Perspective. Journal of Business Communication, 47(3), 266-294.

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"Electronic Privacy in the Workplace." IvyPanda, 12 Aug. 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/employee-privacy-research-paper/.

1. IvyPanda. "Electronic Privacy in the Workplace." August 12, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/employee-privacy-research-paper/.


IvyPanda. "Electronic Privacy in the Workplace." August 12, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/employee-privacy-research-paper/.


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IvyPanda. (2019) 'Electronic Privacy in the Workplace'. 12 August.

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