Surveillance at Work: How Far Is Too Far?

A leading lawyer has warned companies not to overstep the mark when it comes to monitoring their workers.

Workplace surveillance is becoming more and more commonplace, it is now not unusual for firms to record staff telephone calls, monitor emails, log the addresses of websites visited and record activity on CCTV.

But Vanessa Bell, head of employment law at Ipswich-based law firm Prettys, says employers need to make sure their actions remain lawful – and also consider the potential impact on their workers.

“Despite it being around for a while, we have noticed an increased use of email, internet and telephone monitoring,” she said. 

“More employers are also taking it upon themselves to check in on employees’ social media platforms and regularly monitor the posts being uploaded.”

Some businesses take employee surveillance even further to check on staff efficiency and effectiveness but, Vanessa explained, in some cases this can do more harm than good.

“There have been examples of some employers using software to monitor the whereabouts of staff in the office and even look at how long people spend in break-out rooms,” she added.

“For me, this is a step too far and, rather than improve productivity, this may well have a negative effect, with staff conscious about their movements being tracked. Vanessa also suggests companies need to consider whether the monitoring potentially extends into a worker’s domestic life, for example, if there are tracking devices on company vehicles that can be used for personal use or on company electronic equipment that is taken home.”

Emma Loveday Hill, senior associate within Prettys’ data protection team, explained: ”The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) states that employers need to have clear policies and procedures in place when it comes to the surveillance of employees and protecting their data. Except in extreme cases, staff must understand that their activities might be monitored.”

Emma highlighted the issues that employers need to consider:“We now live in a world where data is being processed by lots of devices and the ICO is constantly updating its codes of practice to reflect these developments. Employers need to regularly check to ensure they are complying with them.”

Vanessa said: “Employment law cases that deal with monitoring will always consider whether the employee has a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the communication in question and if so, was the employer’s interference with that privacy proportionate

“Companies need to have clear procedures and policies in place that inform staff of the nature and extent of the monitoring the organisation carries out,” she added.

“There are legitimate reasons to monitor employee behaviour. For example, recording attendance, ensuring high standards of customer service through monitoring emails and calls and monitoring for the use of offensive or discriminatory language to ensure a non-discriminatory work environment.

“However, employees need to be aware they are being monitored and companies do need to keep in mind that, even within the workplace, employees will have a reasonable expectation of privacy.”

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