Tech Answers: The Ins & Outs of Employee Monitoring

In our Tech Answers series, we pore through search engines, social media and online communities to find three burning software questions that need definitive answers.

How you can be sure your workers are actually, you know, working? Employee monitoring software can tell you. These increasingly popular platforms allow managers to check in on their workforce, whether they’re in the office or working remotely, to ensure they’re staying on task instead of browsing Facebook or doing laundry.

What type of monitoring software products are out there? Is it even legal to essentially spy on your employees? Below, we answer your three most burning employee monitoring questions.

Q1: What Are the Different Types of Employee Monitoring Software?

ANSWER:
There are seven different types of employee monitoring software:

  1. Attendance monitoring
  2. Call monitoring
  3. Computer monitoring
  4. Location monitoring
  5. Mobile device monitoring
  6. Time and expense monitoring
  7. Wellness monitoring

There are many different types of employee monitoring products out there depending on your needs as a small business, ranging from simple apps that employees can proactively use to log their work hours or time spent on a project to more advanced platforms that can discreetly log keystrokes or monitor which websites employees are browsing in real time.

Here are some of the most common types of employee monitoring software you should know about:

Common Types of Employee Monitoring Software

Software type
What it monitors
Example products
Attendance monitoring software Monitors the hours that an employee has clocked into work and any sick or vacation days they’ve used. Planday
Stratustime
TimeClick
Call monitoring software Monitors employee phone interactions with clients or customers. Tracks call stats and records calls and voicemails. Five9
RingCentral
Talkdesk
Computer monitoring software Monitors emails, application usage, websites visited, files accessed and more. May include screen grabbing or keystroke logging. Activity Monitor
Hubstaff
Veriato
Location monitoring software Monitors the location of individual employees or company-owned vehicles outside of the office using GPS. ExakTime
Fleetmatics
Labor Sync
Mobile device monitoring software Monitors call, text, data and app usage from mobile devices. Can be used to remotely install updates or limit device access. AirWatch
FAMOC
MobileIron
Time and expense monitoring software Monitors the hours and expenses that an employee has accrued on a specific task or project. FunctionFox
Mavenlink
Workfront
Wellness monitoring software Monitors employee fitness routines and sleep patterns through wearable fitness trackers. Also tracks logged dietary information. CoreHealth
Limeade
Virgin Pulse

 

The technical requirements of these different types of systems vary. Attendance and time and expense monitoring software, and even some computer monitoring platforms, are cloud-based. Employees have to actively log on to the system to be monitored.

Others, like mobile device systems and more advanced computer monitoring software, require software to be downloaded onto the computer or smartphone in question and be linked to a database to store recorded data. Then there are those that have their own special hardware component, like location monitoring (GPS tracker) and wellness monitoring (wearable).

Q2: Is Employee Monitoring Legal?

ANSWER:
In most cases, employee monitoring is legal. However, there are exceptions depending on what state you’re in, whether you’re a private vs. a public employer and the purpose of your monitoring.

Is Employee Monitoring Legal?

At the federal level, there are no laws that say private companies can’t monitor their own employees. A legal precedent has been set that employers, to a reasonable extent, have the right to know if employees are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

The only time this may not be the case is if you’re a private company with federal contracts or a public company. In these instances, your employee monitoring rights are limited as they may infringe on the 4th amendment.

At the state level, things are pretty much the same. Unless you’re in Connecticut or Delaware, you don’t even need to tell employees that you’re monitoring them in most cases (though you probably should anyway; we’ll talk about that a little later).

Let’s look at more specific applications of employee monitoring, because there are legal caveats you should be aware of:

Is Attendance and Time Monitoring Legal?

100 percent, yes. Businesses need to know how much employees have worked to calculate payroll—especially with contract workers—so there is a clear business purpose here.

Is Call Monitoring Legal?

On company-owned phones, it is legal to track the time and length of calls and the phone numbers that are involved. You can also listen in or record employee phone calls as long as it’s for legitimate business reasons. If you’re a call center trying to ensure quality control, that’s a legitimate business reason. So is protecting proprietary trade secrets.

If things get personal though, hang up. Employers can’t knowingly listen in on calls that aren’t business related.

State laws play a big role here. In so-called “two-party consent” states—California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Washington—employers are required to get consent from all parties involved in a telephone call before recording or listening in, including customers. The rest of the states are “one-party consent” states, where only the employer (and by extension, the employee) needs to give consent.

Is Computer Monitoring Legal?

If a company owns the network and the computer an employee is using, it is completely legal to monitor their digital activity on that computer. You can monitor the programs they’re using, the websites they’re visiting, the documents they’re creating and accessing and even read their emails and chat communications if you have a valid business purpose for doing so. The blocking of certain websites or applications and keystroke logging is also legal.

Where does computer monitoring enter more of a grey area? When an employee uses their own computer or network, for one. There’s also been cases where it was ruled that employees have the right to keep personal emails or non-public social media posts from a password-protected email account private, even on a company computer. In these cases, it’s best to get written consent to monitor first.

Is Location Monitoring Legal?

It is completely legal to monitor employee whereabouts while on company property using video recording equipment or a location-tagging keycard, as long as you avoid areas where employees have a right to privacy (e.g., bathrooms, break rooms, union meetings) and don’t record audio. It is also legal to monitor employee location outside of the office with GPS or mobile device tracking.

A few things here though.

  • You should definitely get written consent from an employee to monitor their location, even if you’re not required to do so.
  • Use company-owned equipment to track employee location.
  • Do not monitor employee location during non-business hours. Employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy at this time.

Is Mobile Device Monitoring Legal?

Similar to computer monitoring, if the company owns the mobile device in question, they have the right to monitor its activity and usage. If it’s an employee’s phone though, get written consent.

Is Wellness Monitoring Legal?

Wellness monitoring is a relatively new practice, so there isn’t a ton of legislation in place telling employers what they can and can’t do. Most wellness monitoring is done on a volunteer basis—employees volunteer to be tracked as part of an employee wellness program in exchange for a discount on health insurance, for example.

If you’re going to mandate that employees wear fitness trackers that you can monitor, have a clear business reason for doing so in order to avoid privacy or discrimination litigation. Employers don’t have a legal obligation to tell an employee about a health concern uncovered from fitness tracker data, but it’s recommended they do so anyway.

Q3: What Are the Pros and Cons of Employee Monitoring?

ANSWER:
The pros of employee monitoring include increased security, higher productivity and having hard evidence to support fireable offenses. The cons of employee monitoring are lower morale, higher turnover and an uncertain ROI.

Is employee monitoring legal? Yes. Is employee monitoring ethical? That’s another question entirely, and one that small businesses should consider carefully before implementing employee monitoring software. You may be completely in the right to monitor your workers, but that’s not going to do a ton of good if they feel violated enough to leave the company.

In the end, companies need to weigh the pros and cons of employee monitoring:

5 Pros of Employee Monitoring

1. Having hard evidence. Suspecting a worker is slacking off or doing something against company policy is just that—suspecting. It’s not proof. With employee monitoring in place, you can produce the evidence necessary to support a claim and get a toxic worker out of your company quickly.

2. Increased security. Gartner predicts that through 2018, organizations that monitor employees will realize a 50 percent improvement in security performance over organizations that don’t. Your employees’ security benefits too. For example, if a field service technician goes missing, you can use GPS data to find them.

3. Less work time wasted. A whopping 89 percent of employees say they waste time at work every day—texting friends and loved ones, browsing social media and chatting with coworkers, just to name a few reasons. A little downtime is a good thing, but this can quickly get out of hand. Knowing they’re being monitored, employees are more likely to stay on task.

4. More constructive feedback. Workers are desperate for more feedback from their managers, but that’s hard to do when managers have limited insight into their performance. With monitoring in place, managers can see exactly the areas where workers are doing well and where there’s room for improvement.

5. Lightening the administrative load. HR departments spend nearly three-fourths of their work hours on administrative tasks like data entry and record maintenance. Having employee monitoring software in place can automate some of these tedious requirements and allow workers to handle some of their time-keeping and project-tracking tasks themselves.


5 Cons of Employee Monitoring

1. Lower morale. If you’ve ever had to work with a manager over your shoulder, you know it’s not the best environment to get any work done. Employee monitoring can feel like that but tenfold, which can cause increased stress and anxiety among workers leading to lower overall morale and productivity.

2. Higher turnover. Despite your legitimate business reasons for implementing monitoring software, employees aren’t going to take too kindly to being watched like they’re in a dystopian novel. If workers don’t feel comfortable being monitored, they’re not going to try to change the rules, they’ll just leave.

3. A false sense of security. Employee monitoring systems aren’t perfect solutions, but it’s easy to be lulled into the feeling that they are. If an employee wants to steal equipment or avoid doing actual work badly enough though, they’ll find a way. If you rely too much on your software to catch misconduct, those that figure out how to skirt the system will go undetected.

4. The possibility of legal action. Employee monitoring software is advancing rapidly, and the legislation to protect workers isn’t far behind. Go too far, and you could face retaliation in court. One labor lawyer told Inc. he has represented 12 companies in employee monitoring suits the past four years, compared to just three the 20 years prior.

5. No guarantee on ROI. Investing in employee monitoring software and equipment for your entire business comes with a guaranteed cost. Less guaranteed is whether that investment will pay off. Workers may stay just as productive, active and mindful of company policy as they were pre-implementation.

How to Deal With Employee Monitoring Concerns

If you decide the pros outweigh the cons on employee monitoring, here are some final tips to help you deal with worker concerns:

  • Have a written monitoring policy and get worker consent. Just because you can monitor workers without telling them doesn’t mean you should. Breaking that trust may cause detrimental harm in the long-run. Have a written policy in place that details the extent of the monitoring and where employees can go if they have a complaint, then make sure workers agree before implementing.
  • Stress the benefits for workers. You’re not just monitoring employees to protect your own skin (at least I hope not). You’re also doing it to make sure workers are compensated fairly, that teams are working more efficiently and that great employees are better recognized for their contributions.
  • Continually ask for feedback. Chances are you’re going to go overboard or mishandle a thing or two when you start monitoring employees. That’s OK! Make sure to consistently ask for feedback from workers at all levels in all departments to figure out where you can improve your policies and practices.

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