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What Should I Assume About Workplace Technology Monitoring?

What to do when Big Brother happens to be your boss.

Many employers can and do monitor the technological activity of their employees. Here's what you need to consider doing.
Big Brother is Watching You!
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What is a realistic perspective to take currently (in 2022) regarding information technology monitoring in the workplace? In other words, as an employee in an office I want to feel confident and not fearful regarding my efforts while working, not paranoid or distracted about it. Can you provide any helpful insight or redirect to someone who might be able to?

You won’t like my insight.

I’m not saying you should be paranoid about your workplace… but I’m also not saying you shouldn’t be.

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TL;DR:

Workplace technology monitoring

Employers’ monitoring of digital activity in the workplace has only increased in recent years. Aside from asking your employer what they do and what their policies are and then trusting the answer you receive, there’s really only one course of action: assume the worst.

Caveats

I’m not a lawyer, and none of this should be taken as legal advice. If you have a situation you think qualifies, contact appropriate legal counsel.

Speaking of the law: it varies depending on your location. As I understand it, workplace monitoring is generally completely legal. However, the devil is in the details, and the details differ depending on where you are.

The issue

Using technology at or owned by your workplace for anything other than work-related activity may be against your company’s rules, whether those rules are explicitly stated or arbitrary.

You might think of this as only related to the obvious: running your side-hustle from the office, leaking sensitive data, wasting your time playing games, watching sports, or engaging in other online distractions.

Depending on those rules, though, it could be just about anything: checking personal email, messaging to friends and family, or even looking at your personal calendar could all qualify as being against policy.

It doesn’t have to be restricted to using company equipment. For example, if your phone connects to company Wi-Fi while you’re at work, that might also come under the corporate rules umbrella.

It doesn’t have to be restricted to being at the company workplace, either. If you take company equipment home, the rules could apply to whatever you do with that equipment there as well.

And, of course, the rules vary from company to company, and in the worst case (or company), from moment to moment.

The real issue at hand? Your company could be watching. They could see everything you’re up to. And there’s really no way to know if they are.

The safest bet

Knowing nothing else about your specific workplace or situation, there’s really only one position you can take: assume your activity is being monitored. Period.

The implications are also pretty simple: never do anything using workplace resources that might go against company policies or guidelines. Never do anything unrelated to your work. Never do anything that might cause your activity to raise red flags or otherwise cause problems.

Yes, that’s harsh.

But with no additional information, we must assume the worst in order to avoid breaking possible rules, or the possibility of having our non-work activity examined in detail.

How common is monitoring?

The Wall Street Journal reports1 that since the COVID-19 pandemic, upwards of 60% of employers with over 500 employees use some form of monitoring.

That’s a lot.

Here’s the thing, though: all that monitoring requires resources — people — to act on any results. If you are being monitored, does it really matter if no one looks at the results? How are the results used? Real-time monitoring? Twice-a-year performance reviews? Only for specifically prohibited activities? Something else? Perhaps just an empty threat?

There’s no way to know.

Even if you work for a small company, the risk of being monitored remains.

What to do

If you can, ask.

Ask your boss. Ask your HR department. Ask your IT department. Ask someone who knows exactly what the rules are.

  • Am I being monitored?
  • What kinds of activities are being recorded?
  • Why? What is done with this information?
  • What are the “rules” I’m supposed to adhere to that the monitoring is supposed to keep track of?
  • What happens when I do something “wrong”?

Straight answers should set your mind at ease. At least your company is (hopefully) being open with you and you know the boundaries of allowed activities.

Then it’s your responsibility to stay within those boundaries, and monitoring shouldn’t be an issue.

But what if?

What if you can’t trust your employer?

What if you can’t trust their answers to whether you’re being monitored or how that information might be used? What if there isn’t anyone you feel comfortable asking?

You have two options.

  1. Assume the worst. Assume anything you say or do with your company-provided technology can and will be used against you if needed. Toe the line.

or

  1. Find other employment that you can trust.

I totally understand that option #2 is not an option for many people. That leaves you with only the first.

Do this

You are right to ask the question. It’s important, I think, to understand what your employer may or may not be monitoring and how that information may be used. It’s important to understand just how much leeway you have as you perform your job.

Hopefully, most employers are honest and understanding when it comes to your activity.

Hopefully, your activities respect the needs of your employer as well.

But as we all know, all employers are not most employers, and we’ve all encountered employees who push the limits of responsibility when it comes to their work.

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Footnotes & References

1: Wall Street JournalShould Companies Track Workers With Monitoring Technology?  April 20, 2022

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