Corporate spying can damage trust
It's increasingly possible to know what your employees are up to—both in and out of the office. Phone calls can be recorded, emails and messages monitored, the amount of time spent at a keyboard chalked up. And social networking websites such as Facebook and Bebo mean you can often get a clear insight into the private lives of the people you're paying. Some employers go even further, using private detectives to keep tabs on their employees.
"Staff have no idea how much they can be watched," says Caroline Doran, an employment law specialist at law firm Rooks Rider. "For just a few thousand pounds, a business can pay someone to investigate a staff member's company laptop. And private detectives are commonly used, particularly when someone has been off long-term sick," she says.
John Blackwell of business consultancy JBA agrees. His own research finds that 55 per cent of companies retain and review their employees' email messages, 51 per cent track and monitor phone calls and 36 per cent even track content, keyboard strokes, and time spent at a keyboard.
It's clearly important to safeguard your interests, but is this Big Brother approach really good for business? Blackwell thinks some employers have crossed the line between common sense and paranoia. "Once you have decided to employ someone, there must be an intrinsic level of trust in that relationship," he says. "Most people are trustworthy; those who aren't are like that anyway. Hiring a private detective to monitor unfaithful staff won't make them faithful."
He argues that a lack of trust indicates a problem: "If the work relationship has sunk to such a low that managers feel compelled to spy on their staff, then trust has gone. And if that's the case, how can managers expect anything approaching optimal performance?"
All experts agree that it is better to be honest with employees. If bosses feel it is necessary to monitor staff, it is important to make sure they know. Doran says: "Most companies will turn a blind eye to minor misdemeanors by staff if they are good workers, but prevention is always better than cure, so tell staff exactly what your policy of monitoring is. It's not just good practice; it's practical, too."
It's also possible that gathering more information about individuals both at work and in their personal lives will increase the potential risks to a business. John Wood, new-media officer at the TUC, says: "Employers may be concerned about breaches of commercial confidentiality or damaging the company's reputation. This is the same whether misconduct happens online or offline. But online social networking is making employees' private lives more public and some companies may be over-reacting to this increased level of knowledge about what their employees say about their work.
"Bosses should be able to prove they have a valid reason to monitor their staff. But until both employers and employees understand exactly what tools are being used and how, there will be friction. Companies could be embarrassed and employees hurt, so that is not a road we want to see companies go down," comments Wood.