Are your bosses spying on you? They legally can

More companies are using monitoring software to track their employees, according to research firm Clutch. (Getty Images/iStockphoto/fizkes)

Company use of employee-monitoring software has risen since the pandemic drove waves of workers home to work remotely.

Various versions can track browser history, the amount of time spent on work-related apps or even send periodic screen shots of an employee’s computer to managers or human resource departments.

There are pros and cons for both employers and employees, but it is definitely legal.

According to the Electronic Privacy Act of 1986, any computer that is provided by an employer is the employer’s property. So if the employer provides you with a computer, the employer is allowed to see what you do with it, and not tell you about it.

A recent survey by D.C.-based B2B research firm Clutch found 30% of employees weren’t even sure if they were being monitored. Another 21% said their companies did use employee-monitoring software, and 49% said their companies did not.

While companies aren’t required to disclose it, Clutch says they should.

“Clutch interviewed somebody at a company that implemented monitoring software without telling anybody, and when people found out, they started joking about big brother and employee morale suffered. And people left the company a lot earlier,” said Matt Miller, editorial associate at Clutch.

“If you’re going to implement monitoring software, you need to be transparent. Otherwise there will be a morale hit,” Miller said.

Whether it is effective is unclear. Clutch reports that only 13% of employees surveyed think monitoring software makes them more productive, and 72% said it has no effect.

Gen X workers, ages 35 to 54, and baby boomers 55 and older are most concerned about employers’ access to their data. But younger employees are much less bothered by it.

“Compare that to millennials and those who are under 34 who grew up with the Patriot Act, and who grew up with Edward Snowden and TikTok, probably already have the presumption that they are being monitored and are much less concerned about employee monitoring software,” Miller said.

There also is a disconnect at the executive level over whether it is necessary. CEOs largely think it has a negative impact on morale. But 80% of those working in HR surveyed thought it had either no effect or improved employee morale.

There are ways for employees to use their work being electronically monitored to their advantage.

“If you’ve ever felt like you’ve done the work on a project and didn’t get credit, employee-monitoring software will show you did the work. If you’re somebody who finds it tough to toot your own horn in performance evaluations, employee monitoring software shows that you were doing the work and gives actual data that you were succeeding,” Miller said.

“If you know that it is happening, there are ways to use it to your advantage as an employee,” he said.

Clutch’s full report on the pros and cons of employee-monitoring software includes advice for employers using, or considering the use of monitoring software.

Clutch’s survey included 400 full-time workers across the country and was conducted during the month of June. Of those surveyed, 13% lived in the Northeast, 38% in the South, 30% in the Midwest and 20% in the West.

Jeff Clabaugh

Jeff Clabaugh has spent 20 years covering the Washington region's economy and financial markets for WTOP as part of a partnership with the Washington Business Journal, and officially joined the WTOP newsroom staff in January 2016.

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