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Understanding Employee Monitoring Systems and Privacy Issues

Aigerim Berzinya
Aigerim Berzinya

Monitoring software can increase worker productivity, but you must implement it ethically.

Employee monitoring systems give businesses the means to track workers at all times. This can be an effective way to measure productivity, performance, hours worked, punctuality and other factors inherent in running a successful company. However, businesses that leverage technology to monitor their workforce must do so ethically, carefully and respectfully. It is important to understand how you can do this, what employee monitoring tools are available, and what privacy issues you must consider before introducing tracking software into your daily processes. 

Types of employee monitoring tools

Investing in an employee monitoring system is a big step for any business. There are real advantages to implementing employee monitoring systems, but choosing the right tools can be daunting. Here's a brief rundown of your options:

  1. Wearable tech: Badges or wristbands with GPS technology enable you to track the locations and movement of your staff, with some products capable of gathering audio data. Some can also identify whether the wearer is sitting or standing (using an accelerometer).

  2. Software on company computers and devices: Employee monitoring software can track almost everything employees do on their computers. It can capture screenshots, record videos or measure the number of keystrokes in a given timeframe. You can also track the websites employees visit and even view their screens as they work. Some software goes a step further and takes a picture of the computer user to make sure they're really at their desk.

  3. Vehicular GPS tracking devices: Businesses with a fleet of cars or trucks at their disposal can stay connected to their vehicles with GPS fleet tracking for sharing locations, recording fuel consumption, recording distance traveled, viewing routes taken, and monitoring employees' driving safety.

  4. Email monitoring: Employers can access and view emails employees send and receive on company accounts. These messages are usually checked to ensure employees aren't sharing confidential company data.

  5. Video surveillance: This is a great way to not only make sure your team is working but to protect your physical establishment from vandalism and theft.

  6. Social media tracking: Employers can check how much time employees are spending on social networking sites while at work. Some tools also allow employers to view what employees are posting on these sites and what direct messages they send.

  7. Project management apps: These digital tools allow employers to track employees' workflow and see how long they spent on assignments. Project management software helps you monitor their activity and progress on projects as well.


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Benefits of employee monitoring systems

Whatever your mission, whoever your clients, your core focus is delivering the best service, satisfying your audience and retaining their business. Employee monitoring systems facilitate this by allowing you to do the following:

  • View workers' activities and movements in real time to minimize time-wasting and ensure a harmonious balance of effort across your entire team. [Check out our review of BambooHR for the best employee monitoring software for performance management.]

  • Help employees on the road (such as taxi drivers or couriers) find the best routes, avoid traffic jams and reach their destinations with minimal delay.

  • Measure productivity and ensure that your staff operates at their maximum capacity, hits targets and generally meets expectations. [See why Activtrack is our best pick for employee monitoring software for workforce analytics.]

  • Identify problems affecting your team's results and create a streamlined, efficient way of working.

[Are you considering using employee monitoring software in your business? If so, check out our recommendations for the best employee monitoring software.]

Examples of companies using employee monitoring

Each employee monitoring tool offers practical benefits suited to diverse goals. Retail brands, for instance, may find it helpful to equip the staff on their shop floors with wearable tech (wristbands or badges) to keep track of who's doing what and when through location sharing. This lets owners see which areas of the store are left unmanned and vulnerable to theft throughout the day. They can also detect which employees are gathering to chat and which are left to handle the heavy lifting by themselves. 

Businesses that center on transportation of goods may install GPS tracking devices in employees' vehicles to monitor how honest drivers are when claiming expenses for fuel – and how seriously they take your company's time, fuel efficiency, and the safety of others on the road as well as their own. Businesses can monitor their drivers' locations, routes, fuel consumption and driving practices. This reduces the risk of wasted time, unnecessary expenditure and safety hazards, cultivating a culture of honesty. [If this sounds like a solution you need, check out our picks for the best GPS fleet tracking systems.]

Privacy issues to consider with employee monitoring systems 

Despite the benefits that employee monitoring systems offer, some real dangers have to be addressed in terms of privacy. These are some examples of potential abuse of employee monitoring that you should consider in your use of any monitoring technology.

GDPR standards

The General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, went into effect across Europe in 2018, equipping civilians of the European Union and the European Economic Area with better data security. Since then, the process of browsing websites has become a little different in the affected countries, and people are generally more aware of their data privacy rights. 

While GDPR compliance isn't mandatory in the U.S., all businesses should be mindful of the same principles in their use of employee monitoring systems. Workers may have been more susceptible to intrusive behavior on the part of their employers in the days of Henry Ford (with his team's bizarre brand of in-depth questioning), but businesses today may meet some resistance to employee monitoring. That's why it's so important to be honest, open and willing to answer your workers' questions from the moment you decide to embrace employee monitoring systems. 

Case study: Uniontrad Company

The CNIL (Commission nationale de l'informatique et des libertes), France's data protection authority, issued a fine of 20,000 euros when the Uniontrad Company conducted illicit video monitoring of its employees over several years. Employees made numerous complaints to the CNIL from 2013 to 2017, prompting the CNIL to investigate Uniontrad's activities. It discovered that the videos were recording staff activities "continuously" – and, even worse, employees were given no information on what the cameras were actually picking up. 

This is just one example of how unethical employee monitoring practices can cause problems between businesses and their employees. It's more important than ever for companies to respect their workforce in an age when data protection and consumer rights are so prevalent. 

Types of data you should and shouldn't be monitoring

In the workplace, it's normal for employers to check what their employees are doing on the job. However, not all your workers' information is fair game, so to protect your business legally, it is important to know what's in and out of bounds.

According to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, you can legally track employee activity on any device your company gives to your workers. This includes files, downloads, internet usage, and social media activity on company networks and devices.

The ECPA does not allow you to listen in on or record employee phone calls. However, you might be able to receive authorization for this, depending on your circumstances, concerns and state.

Federal laws allow you to access and view private emails and conduct video surveillance on employees, except in private areas like the restroom. Employers can also track what workers type through keystroke-tracking technology.

Federally, you are not obligated to inform employees they're being monitored. However, the rules for each state vary, so make sure to check the laws in your areas of business before you start monitoring.

An ethical approach to employee monitoring and respecting privacy

Simply installing GPS tracking devices in your company vehicles without telling the drivers is hugely unethical and likely to inspire resentment. You may even be liable for a fine. Equipping staff with wristbands, badges or smartphones capable of gathering data on their activities in secret can lead to the same problems. 

To avoid alienating employees, make sure the following details are always fully available: 

  • What data will be gathered and what it will be used for
  • How this information will be processed
  • When the monitoring system will go into effect
  • Where employees can find relevant details on all of the above 

Failure to disclose this information could have a serious impact on your staff's productivity, performance and turnover. After all, if they can get the same money doing the same job at a business that respects their privacy, why should they stay?

If you think it sounds extreme to suggest that employees may quit over monitoring, think again. According to a blog post by Accenture, just over half of the people questioned for a survey claimed they would think about quitting their current role if employers failed to use workplace data and technologies responsibly. 

Make sure you remain completely transparent when implementing employee monitoring systems into your workplace. As Accenture further reveals, BMC Software took a fair approach when it launched email and calendar tracking. It offered employees the chance to opt in and delivered tailored feedback on how they could manage their time better. The company used the data it gathered to prevent staff from becoming overworked, showing explicit respect and concern for their employees' wellbeing.

Hitachi also equipped workers with wearable devices to monitor their activities and used the data effectively, leading to a rise in workplace satisfaction. 

You want your employees to be satisfied. You want them to feel valued. You want them to feel driven to succeed on a daily basis – especially when research shows a happy workforce is up to 20% more productive

BMC Software and Hitachi's examples show that it's possible to get employees on board with monitoring systems if you take the right approach. Make sure your employees understand what the technology does and what benefits it offers, and give them the option to decline the opportunity if they feel it's inappropriate.

Bottom line on employee monitoring

Integrating employee monitoring systems into your business's processes is worth consideration – but you have to do it right. 

Keep the above points in mind when using employee monitoring systems. Define your goals from the start, respect your workers' privacy, and make them fully aware of their rights. 

Always be transparent with your staff, from the moment you announce the initiative. Never try to sneak wearable tech or GPS employee tracking devices into your workers' daily activities without their consent. The potential damage to your employees' trust, your brand reputation, and your business's future when you're discovered simply isn't worth it.

Simone Johnson contributed to the reporting and writing in this article.

Image Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock
Aigerim Berzinya
Aigerim Berzinya Member
Aigerim Berzinya is the Marketing Director at Turtler GPS Ltd. and as the company's globetrotting backpacker uses the app and SHELL device while hiking abroad or in the mountains to stay connected and safe. She has a Master`s Degree in Social Sciences. Aigerim worked for QSI International School for 4 years as an Assistant to Director and a Preschool Manager for a year.