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Workplace Surveillance Essay

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Updated: May 16th, 2019


In the last two decades, employers have used workplace surveillance to monitor their employees. The methodology employed in the study of the perspectives of various stakeholders in the labor industry involved a review of secondary sources of data.

The labor process theory was used to analyze the stakeholders’ perspectives. The findings indicates that controlling workers’ activities as opposed to ensuring workers’ security is the main objective of workplace surveillance.

The labor process theory indicates that workplace surveillance enhances modern management strategies which utilize elements of scientific management (West, 2005, p. 23). Thus workplace surveillance is a matter of control that leads to invasion of privacy.


Workplace surveillance refers to the strategies used by employers to “monitor the activities of their employees” (Ariss, 2002, pp. 553-558). It mainly involves observing the working area and employees’ activities or listening to workers in a secretive manner.

The observation or monitoring is done with the help of electronic gadgets such as cameras, wiretaps, computers and microphones. Employers mainly use workplace surveillance to promote high productivity, control the use of resources, prevent theft and ensure workers’ safety (Ariss, 2002, pp. 553-558).

However, its use often facilitates great control over the labor force. Besides, it leads to violation of workers’ privacy rights if misused. This has led to the debate as to whether workplace surveillance is a tool for ensuring workers’ safety or a tool for control and violation of workers’ privacy rights.

This paper supports the premise that workplace surveillance is a control technique and an invasion of privacy. The views of various stakeholders in regard to workplace surveillance will be illuminated and evaluated using the labor process theory.


The findings of this paper are based on qualitative research on workplace surveillance. The topic was studied through analysis of secondary sources of data. This involved conducting a literature review on the reports of previous research works on the topic.

Other sources of secondary data included journals, labor industry reports, newspaper reports and information available on websites of labor unions. The information obtained from these sources was used to evaluate the views of workers concerning workplace surveillance.

It was also used to assess the role of workplace surveillance and how it should be implemented based on employers’ perspective, labor unions’ perspective and the role of the state.

The main limitation of the methodology is that the sources of information mainly focus on the Australian labor industry and thus may not represent a worldwide view on workplace surveillance.

Besides, some of the data obtained on workers’ perspective in regard to workplace surveillance was based on the workers’ personal views. Such views however, might not be representative of the industry.

Workplace Surveillance as a Strategy for ensuring Workers’ Safety

Employers’ or Management’s Perspective

Employers usually rely on electronic surveillance to ensure security of their employees and their buildings (Ariss, 2002, pp. 553-558). They normally use cameras to monitor the activities of their employees and everyone who enters their buildings.

The rise in acts of terror in the last decade has forced the employers to monitor activities at their workplaces. This has necessitated the introduction of CCTV systems to observe and report any activities at the workplace that may lead to security breach.

Cases of physical and sexual harassments have also necessitated close monitoring at the workplace. Due to the sensitivity of offences such as sexual harassment, concrete evidence is usually needed to apprehend the perpetrators.

It is against this backdrop that employers install cameras to monitor activities of their employees at the workplace (Stanton and Weiss, 2000, pp. 423-440). Indirect bullying at the workplace especially through the spread of defamatory information or gossiping is another cause of monitoring.

In this case, the management monitors the communications of employees to ensure that information that may cause emotional injury to other employees is not circulated.

This involves verifying the contents of workers’ emails and tape-recoding conversations in order to incriminate the offenders (Stanton and Weiss, 2000, pp. 423-440). These forms of surveillance are thus used by the management to ensure safety at the workplace.

Employees’ Perspective

Safety at the workplace is a major concern to majority of employees at any given workplace. The employees are likely to perform better if they are assured of their safety or security.

Research on workplace safety indicates that the security of workers is not only threatened by external aggressors but also fellow employees (Stanton and Weiss, 2000, pp. 423-440). Due to the competition at the workplace, some employees usually embark on unorthodox means to stay a head in the competition.

For example, some employees may focus on tarnishing the reputation of their colleagues in order to prevent them from being promoted. Such behaviors involve the spread of malicious information or physical harassment.

In order to prevent such cases of criminal acts, employees normally advocate for monitoring of their behavior at workplaces (Atak and Erturgut, 2010, pp. 1452-1456). Victims of workplace harassment are usually able to defend themselves if they are able to back their claims with the aid of evidences such as camera footage.

Research indicates that cases of workplace violence or harassment are less in offices where activities of employees are closely monitored (Atak and Erturgut, 2010, pp. 1452-1456). Despite these benefits, some employees are opposed to workplace surveillance as a safety measure.

They consider acts such as verification of the contents of their emails a fundamental invasion of their privacy. Besides, some employees are normally uncomfortable to work under cameras even if they do not have criminal intentions.

Role of State and Legislation

It is the role of the sate to ensure that employers provide secure work environments to their employees. This has always been achieved through appropriate legislation that forces employers to guarantee safety of their workers.

Failure to ensure security at the workplace is normally considered an act of negligence on the part of the employer (Mishra and Orampton, 2000, pp. 2-10). Injuries resulting from such negligence can result into severe consequences such as law suits or cancelation of licenses.

While workplace surveillance is not a government requirement, it has been accepted by labor industry regulators especially if it can guarantee the safety of employees (Mishra and Orampton, 2000, pp. 2-10). The state has the dual responsibility of ensuring that employees are safe at their workplaces as well as protecting their privacy rights.

This means that the state laws only recognize safety measures that do not infringe workers’ privacy. Consequently, appropriate legislation has been put in place to guide the process of workplace surveillance.

Such guidelines define the situations under which workplace surveillance should be used and how it should be implemented in order to protect workers’ privacy. The labor unions also support the fact that workplace surveillance as a safety measure must be conducted in a manner that does not violate workers’ privacy rights (Mishra and Orampton, 2000, pp. 2-10).

Workplace Surveillance as an Inversion of Privacy and Employer Control

Management Perspective

Contrary to the popular belief, workplace surveillance is not just about security and workers’ safety. Corporations in the modern economy consider workplace surveillance an effective control technique that can facilitate control over the workforce and an increase in productivity (Stanton, 2003, pp. 257-274).

It is for this reason that they invest in advanced information and communication technology to support the surveillance. Workplace surveillance as a control tool is used by employers for the following reasons. First, it is used as a strategy for preventing theft at the workplace (Mishra and Orampton, 2000, pp. 2-10).

This is a common practice in the retail industry whereby employers install hidden cameras in their stores to monitor the activities of their staffs. The employees who steal goods from the stores are caught by the cameras and the footages are used as evidence against them in law courts.

Cases of theft at the workplace are likely to reduce significantly if the workers know that they are likely to be caught.

Second, workplace surveillance is used to control the use of the company’s resources. Control over the use of resources such as computers and internet, phones and stationery can lead to significant reduction in operating costs (Saxby, 2000, pp. 17-18).

Consequently, employers set rules or guidelines on how and when the company’s resources such as internet can be used. In order to ensure that such guidelines are being followed, they embark on workplace surveillance. For example, internet surveillance has always been used to control workers’ ability to use the internet.

This involves verifying the content of emails and the WebPages visited to ensure that the internet is being used only for official duties (Saxby, 2000, pp. 17-18). Phones are normally wiretapped to ensure that employees do not use them for their private businesses.

Third, workplace surveillance is a tool for monitoring workers’ performance in order to promote high productivity. Employers use management software that monitors employees’ activities such as “sales, contacts with customers and time taken to complete tasks” (Schmitz, 2005, pp. 727-738).

These records are used to generate computer reports that form the basis of employees’ evaluation. Finally, employers use workplace surveillance to protect privileged information or trade secrets.

In markets characterized with high competition, businesses withhold information relating to their sales strategies, marketing plans and financial performances.

In cases where intellectual property is not protected through appropriate legislation, employers control employees’ access to information relating to product development (Schmitz, 2005, pp. 727-738). In order to achieve these objectives, the employers must use effective workplace surveillance strategies to closely monitor their employees.

Software packages are normally used to track employees’ activities whenever they work online to ensure they do not access or distribute privileged information (Schmitz, 2005, pp. 727-738). These trends indicate that workplace surveillance is an effective control tool, which enhances the profitability of the firm at the expense of employees’ privacy.

Employees’ Perspective

Research on employees’ job satisfaction indicates that majority of them across various industries are opposed to workplace surveillance. This is because many workers consider workplace surveillance a control tool associated with the following demerits.

First, employees consider “privacy a guaranteed human right” (Stanton, 2003, pp. 257-274). Consequently, they believe that no one including their employers have the right to deny them this right since it is provided for by the constitution.

Employees’ main concern is the fact that employers verify everything without distinguishing between private communication and official communication. Employees’ opposition to acts such as verification of the content of their emails is based on the fact that the emails are their properties and not the employers (Stanton, 2003, pp. 257-274).

Consequently, the later has no right to read their emails. This means that workplace surveillance especially through electronic means is an unnecessary invasion of employees’ privacy.

Second, intense surveillance at the workplace leads to low motivation among the workers (Blass and Douglas, 2002, pp. 36-52). As machines such as computers assume supervisory roles in the monitoring process, employees become alienated from their jobs.

Majority of employees feel that workplace surveillance makes them subjects of machines which they are in-charge of (Blass and Douglas, 2002, pp. 36-52). Performance evaluations based on computer reports are not balanced since they do not take into account other aspects of the employees’ performance such as their relationships with colleagues or their emotional wellbeing.

Besides, such reports do not allow the employees to explain their failures. In some cases, workplace surveillance leads to evaluation based on perception rather than facts (Blass and Douglas, 2002, pp. 36-52).

For example, information obtained from an employee through wiretaps can be used against them by their colleagues. Thus the evaluations made using such information may lead to biased results.

Third, workplace surveillance is a major cause of workplace stress due to the high level of pressure associated with it (Bryart, 2006). As discussed earlier, workplace surveillance is used by employers to ensure high productivity. However, it is sometimes used to set unrealistic job targets which leads to stress.

For example, companies that use digital systems to monitor check-in and check-out time are very strict on time management (Bryart, 2006). In such cases, the employees who are not able to keep time can be punished even if they had a genuine reason to be late.

Employees have had to work extremely hard to meet the high job targets associated with workplace surveillance. Working under tension thus becomes a common practice at work, thereby increasing cases of stress (Bryart, 2006). Finally, workplace surveillance is used by employers to gain access to intellectual property illegally(Bryart, 2006).

This particularly happens in cases whereby new recruits use their own computers at work. Thus when their employers monitor the use of their employees’ computers, they are likely to gain access and use the employee’s private information without being noticed.

These trends indicate that employees perceive workplace surveillance to be a control mechanism meant to benefit their employers at their expense.

Role of State and Legislation

The state is charged with the responsibility of protecting the interest of both the employers and the employees. This means that the state through labor laws regulates the relationship and interactions between the employers and their employees (Halpern, Reville and Grunewald, 2008, pp. 175-180).

Workplace surveillance being a form of interaction that determines the relationship between employers and their workers is thus regulated by the government (Halpern, Reville and Grunewald, 2008, pp. 175-180).

Regulating workplace surveillance has been necessitated by the fact that all stakeholders including the government and the general public should benefit from the exercise. The behavior or activities of employees not only affect their employers and colleagues but also the government and the public or customers, hence the need for control over their behavior.

As a neutral party, the government through the labor laws expects workplace surveillance to be conducted according to the guidelines which include but not limited to the following. First, it should be done in a manner that complies with human rights (Halpern, Reville and Grunewald, 2008, pp. 175-180).

This means that the process of workplace surveillance must not override the basic human rights provided for by the constitution. This requirement limits the level of privacy invasion that employers can engage in. for example, they can not install cameras in washrooms or engage in unnecessary recording of conversations at the workplace (Electronic Frontiers Australia, 2005).

Second, workplace surveillance must take into account the interest of both the organization and the public. For example, it should be done in order to prevent employees from committing crime at the workplace or promoting disorder (Electronic Frontiers Australia, 2005).

The crimes that can be prevented through workplace surveillance include drug abuse, tax evasion and watching pornographic materials. Third, workplace surveillance should be used to ensure public safety and health. The management should use it to ensure that workers’ activities do not result into production of goods that are not fit for consumption.

In order to achieve these objectives, the government expects the employers to conduct an impact assessment before embarking on workplace surveillance. The assessment should enable the employers to highlight the purpose and expected benefits of the surveillance (Halpern, Reville and Grunewald, 2008, pp. 175-180).

It should also enable the employers to indentify the negative effects of the surveillance. If a particular form of workplace surveillance is associated with adverse effects on the employees, the employers are expected to explore alternative ways of monitoring their staffs.

The employers are expected to understand the employees’ privacy rights and be ready to accept liability in the event that such privacy rights are violated. These trends thus define the best practice that should be observed by employers in regard to workplace surveillance.

They indicate that the government as a regulator of the labor industry remains neutral on the issue of workplace surveillance. However, the government provides guidelines to ensure that workplace surveillance is beneficial to all parties.

Labor Union’s Perspective

As representatives of the employees, labor unions believe that they must be involved in the process of implementing workplace surveillance. The unions are interested in the implementation process in order to ensure that the rights of their clients’, employees, are not being violated (Effey, Glass and Behly, 2000, pp. 167-177).

Consequently, most labor unions are involved in the bargaining process that determines how workplace surveillance should be implanted, the expected benefits and the punishments that should be used in response to the accusations based on evidence emanating from workplace surveillance.

As stakeholders, labor unions believe that they have a right to access the information obtained from employees through surveillance. For example, they can use information recoded in cameras to prepare defense for their accused clients.

According to labor unions, best practice in workplace surveillance should include the following. First, the employers must realize that surveillance at the workplace involves invasion of workers’ privacy. Thus it must be done in a legal and careful manner.

This is based on the fact that “employees have a legitimate expectation to keep their privacy at the workplace” (Effey, Glass and Behly, 2000, pp. 167-177). Second, the employers must clearly state the purpose of the surveillance and the monitoring activities associated with it should be warranted by real benefits. This means that unions are opposed to surveillance if it is of no value to all stakeholders.

Third, the reasons for conducting the surveillance must be communicated to the workers. Fourth, the employers should clearly specify the degree to which workers should use resources at the workplace (Effey, Glass and Behly, 2000, pp. 167-177).

This will help in avoiding ambiguity when determining whether an employee violated the company’s rules as reported by the surveillance system. Finally, the unions believe that they have a right to contest in a court of law, any accusations made on their clients based on evidence provided by the surveillance system.

These trends indicate that labor unions only support workplace surveillance when it is associated with real benefits to all parties and it is done in a manner that does not infringe the privacy rights of the employees.

Theoretical Framework: Labor Process Theory

This is a Marxist theory which describes the organization of work in the modern or capitalist society (West, 2005, p. 21). The theory explains the workers’ bargaining power in the capitalist labor market. According to this theory, the pursuit of strategies associated with capitalism culminates in deskilling of the workers and routine work.

The rationale for deskilling the workforce is to reduce the costs of production and facilitate high output (West, 2005, p. 26). The capitalists focus on deskilling the workforce since such a labor-force is cheap and can be controlled easily.

This theory explains the process of workplace surveillance as follows. Organization of work in the modern workplaces is based on elements of scientific management. Such elements include setting targets for employees, specifying what the employees are expected to do and how it should be done (Morden, 2004, p. 41).

The main task is broken down into small units which are executed by different workers on a routine basis. Thus in order to realize the objectives of the production process, the activities of each worker must be monitored to ensure that they meet their job targets.

According to the labor process theory, this forms the basis of workplace surveillance. Since the modern labor force is highly skilled, the workers might not be easily controlled even if they are alienated from the production process.

Consequently, employers in the modern or capitalist economy focus on the use of technology to control workers (Morden, 2004, p. 47). This explains the use of technologies such as internet surveillance and desktop surveillance to monitor the employees.

According to labor process theory, evaluation of workers’ performance is heavily reliant on the intelligence obtained from workplace surveillance (Morden, 2004, p. 49).

Workplace surveillance enhances high productivity since it forms the basis for rewarding workers who meet the expectations of the employers as well as punishing those who do not meet such expectations (Griffin, 2006, p. 67). The labor process theory is against this kind of control due to its negative effects on the workers.

As discussed above, monitoring at the workplace leads to stress, alienation, low motivation and job dissatisfaction. This means that intense workplace surveillance finally leads to low productivity instead of high productivity (Griffin, 2006, p. 67).

In regard to the debate on the purpose of workplace surveillance, the labor process theory indicates that it is meant to facilitate control which leads to invasion of workers’ privacy. Maintaining safety is just one of the many functions of workplace surveillance rather than its core objective.

Despite its demerits, employers continue to implement workplace surveillance due to the benefits accruing from the control it facilitates. This leads to the conclusion that workplace surveillance is a mechanism of control over employees and can lead to infringement of employees’ privacy rights.


According to the labor process theory, workplace surveillance can lead to infringement of workers’ privacy rights as well as lowering production as discussed above. In order to maximize the benefits of workplace surveillance, the following recommendations can be considered.

First, the company should develop a clear surveillance policy. The policy should be accompanied by controls that ensure protection of employees’ privacy rights.

Second, the employers should focus on reducing the negative effects such as stress and alienation which are caused by workplace surveillance (Griffin, 2006, p. 70). Finally, employers should encourage responsible autonomy instead of intense surveillance. This will help in boosting workers’ morale.


Workplace surveillance is a strategy used by employers to monitor the activities of their employees (Griffin, 2006, p. 56). It is used to ensure workers’ safety, prevent theft at the workplace, control the use of resources and encourage high productivity.

However, it is also associated with demerits which include low motivation, stress and alienation of workers (Stanton, 2003, pp. 257-274). The analysis of the perspectives of various stakeholders indicates that the primary objective of workplace surveillance is to control the activities of employees at the workplace. However, this control normally leads to the invasion of workers’ privacy.

According to the labor process theory, the use of elements of scientific management in the capitalist society necessitates control over employees. This is best achieved through workplace surveillance. This justifies the premise that workplace surveillance is a matter of control that can lead to invasion of privacy if misused.


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