The Legal, Ethical, And Managerial Concerns Of Employee Monitoring

In today’s business environment, the vast majority of employees have access to various types of technology to help complete their tasks in a more productive manner. These new types of technology – Internet, electronic mail (email), instant messaging (IM), etc. – keep employees in touch with one another and provide for a vast array of knowledge at the click of a mouse. However, as with other advances in the workplace, there are problems which are becoming increasingly apparent to employers.

A 2003 survey by Websense reported that employees spend one-third of their time on the Internet surfing for non-work related topics (Vardi and Weitz, 2004). The estimated annual cost of this lost work time to American companies is $85 billion (Vardi and Weitz, 2004). Despite this, lost productivity and slowed network connections are actually the least of employer worries. Employers need to be mindful that they can be held liable for what their employees are doing on company time with company property.

The idea of monitoring employees in the workplace is often referred to as the “Big Brother” phenomenon, wherein employees are constantly under the watch of their supervisors. This constant observation of employees’ work behavior through their computer or other technology is parallel to having a supervisor standing over one’s shoulder for the entire day. The objective of organizations’ implementing employee monitoring (EM) is to provide a way to protect themselves and to prevent current and future misbehavior.

To utilize EM appropriately, it is important to look at why individuals choose to misbehave at work and what would increase or decrease the likelihood of misbehavior at work. Vardi and Weiner (2004) developed a misbehavior model devoted to the causes of three types of organizational misbehavior (OMB): benefit to the organization; damage to the organization; and benefit to the self. For the purposes of this study the employees’ misbehavior of inappropriate usage of the Internet or email while at work, which only benefits themselves, is of the most interest.

Why would an employee choose to misbehave in this manner even with all of the possible consequences? According to Vardi and Weiner’s (2004) OBM model there are many factors that come into play such as the opportunity to misbehave, organizational control systems, and the employees’ personal beliefs. An employee’s personal beliefs, along with opportunity and the lack of control systems, facilitate employee intentions to misbehave for personal benefit while at work. For example, if an employee has a lot of down time at work, this creates the opportunity to misbehave.

Furthermore, if there are no organizational control systems, inappropriate behavior will occur. Additionally, an employee’s beliefs and values about appropriate behavior at work shape their actions. For example, if an employee believes it is perfectly okay to surf the web on company time and there are little or no controls, the probability of misbehavior will be higher. All of these factors come into play when employees are choosing whether or not to misbehave while at work.

March and Simon (1958) suggested that employees make calculations by weighing the opportunity and benefit of the misbehavior to the possible consequences. Therefore if an organization had strict policies and known consequences (e. g. , firing, demotion) for Internet or email misbehavior, employee calculations would be skewed to the negative consequence side and they would be less likely to choose to misbehave. Salancik and Pfeffer (1978) discussed how employees determine what is considered to be misbehavior within their organization through social information.

Social information can either be formal (an official organizational Internet- and email-usage policy) or informal (discussion between management and employees about what is appropriate Internet and email usage at work) (Salancik & Pfeffer, 1978). These types of formal and informal information set values and norms for the organization about what constitutes misbehavior and the consequences thereof. Employees would then be less likely to engage in such misbehaviors because these go against organizational norms.

When organizations choose to monitor heavily their employees they are immediately setting the tone for the organization’s environment. Some employees might feel this tone is that of suppression, lack of trust, and lost freedom. The environment in which employees work, along with the job tasks they complete, greatly influences their job satisfaction. There are a number of definitions available to describe what is meant by job satisfaction. One overarching definition of job satisfaction is “the extent to which people like (satisfaction) or dislike (dissatisfaction) their jobs” (Spector, 1997, p.

2). The broadness of this definition leads to the first of two categories that industrial/organizational psychologists and researchers have been using to divide job satisfaction. The first, global job satisfaction, aims to look at employees’ satisfaction with their job as a whole. The second, compartmentalized or faceted view of job satisfaction is of more interest. This compartmentalized view of job satisfaction is important because it allows researchers to see exactly what part or facet of work increased or decreased job satisfaction (i.

e. , pay, autonomy, work tasks). To account for this compartmentalization, researchers have defined job satisfaction as “an affective or emotional response toward various facets of one’s job” (Kreitner & Kinicki, 2001, p. 224). By looking at the facets of an employee’s job, researchers can identify which parts of the job are satisfying and which parts are not. This information is important to managers and organizations in terms of creating appropriate interventions at work in hopes of increasing job satisfaction.

Hackman and Oldham developed the Job Characteristic Model initially to determine how to motivate employees internally through their job design (Kreitner ; Kinicki, 2001). This model not only had implications for researchers, but also a practical use for managers in determining how satisfied employees were with their jobs and how to redesign jobs for increased satisfaction (Kreitner ; Kinicki, 2001). The Job Characteristic Model looks at five core job dimensions: skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and feedback.

When these five core job dimensions are met, employees experience the three critical psychological states: experienced meaningfulness (when employees feel that their work is worthwhile and important to the organization), experienced responsibility (when employees feel that they are responsible or accountable for their jobs), and knowledge of results (when employees regularly know whether or not they have been successful at their jobs). When these psychological states are achieved, organizations and employees will benefit (Hackman ; Oldham, 1980) from the internal motivation and increased job satisfaction (Kreitner ; Kinicki, 2001).

These psychological states can be measured in employees by using the Job Diagnostic Survey (JDS) (Hackman ; Oldham, 1980). In the context of today’s highly electronic workplace, certain aspects of the job, and consequently, job satisfaction, could be directly influenced by EM. Of the five dimensions in Hackman and Oldham’s (1980) Job Characteristics Model (skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and feedback) autonomy is the factor most likely to be influenced by EM. Employees strive for autonomy in their jobs so that they have the freedom to do their work on their own timeline and in their own way.

Weaver (1977) surveyed 633 employed individuals and found when other work variables are controlled there was a direct relationship between work autonomy and job satisfaction. Additionally, in a field study of 76 employees using a questionnaire and self-reported data, Roberts and Foti (1998), found a significant positive relationship between the employees’ work autonomy and their job satisfaction. EM could negatively influence employee autonomy by making workers feel as though they do not have the right to use the Internet or email as they so choose, and instead are being governed by “Big Brother.

” This reduction of autonomy could reduce an employee’s overall job satisfaction. The concept of EM employees is highly controversial and lends itself to various opinions and beliefs on the subject. Employee opinion and personal beliefs about work privacy and EM will likely run along a continuum between two anchors: a) strongly believe that employees are entitled to privacy while at work and are against electronic monitoring; b) strongly believe there is no right to privacy at work, that it is the organization’s right, and therefore that it is acceptable to monitor employees at work.

It is expected that employees’ beliefs about workplace privacy will be strongly linked to their acceptance of EM in the workplace and therefore will indirectly influence employee job satisfaction and organizational commitment. For many individuals the right to privacy is very important and they have their own beliefs about where, when, and how their privacy should be maintained. One important fact about an individual’s right to privacy is that it is restricted to places where a person would reasonably expect to be private (i. e. , home, hotel room, telephone booth) (Standler, 1997).

However, some employees believe there is some expectation of privacy at work. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986 was written to prohibit eavesdropping on telephone calls and the interception of email messages On the face of the ECPA, employees would believe that this protects their telephone and email usage while they are at work. However, the ECPA has two exceptions that provide enough leeway for organizations to conduct EM. First, an employer may monitor employee conversations if the monitoring occurs in the ordinary course of business or with the employees’ implied consent, such as a signed EEM policy (Aftab, 2006).

The second exemption gives the employer the right to read and review documents that are on or sent from company resources (Aftab, 2006). The previous two exceptions allow for a broad range of allowable EM processes for organizations to utilize. Additionally, organizations with a strong EM policy outlining procedures, consequences and the applicable legal references are acting to ensure that employees are aware they do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the workplace. By providing a clear understanding to employees on their privacy rights at work, organizations can potentially mitigate negative reactions to EM.

There is currently limited research on the connection between EM and employees beliefs about privacy and monitoring. Oz et al. (1999) found a correlation between employees’ negative opinions or beliefs about EM and their belief that EM has a negative effect on productivity. The employees surveyed believed that EM caused greater tension between employees and managers and a reduction in morale which would lead to lower productivity (Oz et al. 1999). Mishra and Crampton (1998) cited many disadvantages of electronic monitoring, among them the lack of consideration of how employees feel about EM.

Although not tested, Mishra and Crampton (1998) suggested that employees see EM as an invasion of privacy which could lead to stress and anxiety. Currently, there is no research that looks at employee’s personal beliefs about work privacy and EM.


Aftab, P. (2006). Monitoring employee communication on the Internet: Big brother or responsible business. Retrieved June 20, 2009, from http://www. aftab. com/monitoringemplyeecommunications. htm Hackman, J. R. ; Oldham, G. R. (1980). Work redesign. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley Publishers Kreitner, R. ; Kinicki, A. (2001). Organizational Behavior (5th ed.j.

Boston: McGraw Hill. March, J. G. ; Simon, H. A. (1958). Organizations. New York: John Wiley. Mishra, J. M. ; Crampton, S. M. (1998). Employee monitoring: Privacy in the workplace? SAM Advanced Management Journal, 63, 4-14. Oz, E. , Glass, R. , ; Behling, R. (1999). Electronic workplace monitoring: What employees think. Omega, The International Journal of Management Science, 27, 167-177. Roberts, H. E. ; Foti, R. J. (1998). Evaluating the interaction between self-leadership and work structure in predicting job satisfaction. Journal of Business and Psychology, 12, 257-267 Salancik, G.

; Pfeffer, J. (1978). A social information processing approach to job attitudes and task design. Administrative Science Quarterly, 23, 224-253 Spector, P. E. (1997). Job satisfaction: application, assessment, cause, and consequences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Vardi, Y. ; Weitz, E. (2004). Misbehavior in organizations: theory, research, and management. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers. Weaver, C. N. (1977). Relationships among pay, race, sex, occupational prestige, supervision, work autonomy, and job satisfaction in a national sample. Personnel Psychology, 30, 437-445

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