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Electronic Surveillance in the Workforce

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Employment
Wordcount: 3228 words Published: 9th Feb 2020

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 According to the Office of Technology Assessment, electronic monitoring is “the computerized collection, storage, analysis, and reporting of information about employees’ productive activities” (Mishra and Crampton, 1998, p. 4).   Certain jobs are more likely to be monitored such as data processing because it is easy to keep track of the outputs.  Some examples of employee monitoring are computer monitoring, video surveillance, e-mail, and the active badge system.  Computer monitoring tracks every keystroke a worker makes, however, this monitoring is inaccurate because it cannot determine the circumstances of a temporary pause in production.  Video surveillance captures stealing and safety risks but can be installed so employees do not know they are there which is unethical.  Email is an electronic mail system used in many companies, but employers can read all employee email even if the messages are marked private or have been deleted.  The active badge system traces the employee’s location in the workplace.  According to Pountain, the active badge system, “has the potential to be abused by overzealous management, to create almost Orwellian surveillance regimes” (Mishra and Crampton, 1998, p. 7).  Electronic monitoring violates employees’ rights; therefore, employers should not use it in the workplace. 

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 Electronic surveillance is an invasion of an employee’s privacy.  “Privacy is a moral right that a person has in relation to other persons and with respect to the possession of information by other persons about him/herself” (Martinez, 2014, p. 28).  Since privacy is a moral right, electronic monitoring is unethical.  Even if the employers tell the employees that they are being monitored, the employees’ rights are still not protected.  According to DesJardins, “Even employees that accept e-Surveillance may be forced to act against their moral rights because of the fear of losing their job it they do not” (Martinez, 2014, p.28).  Not all data employers collect are related directly to their performance.  “Data concerning employees’ security clearance, computer applications preferred, right/left handedness, and even how the user takes his coffee – which go beyond how an employees is performing on the job” (Mishra & Crampton, 1998, p. 8).  Then this data can be used against workers and could even spread to other co-workers or potential employers.  In addition to employees, many organizations are against electronic monitoring.  “Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Workplace Fairness, and National Work Rights Institute argue that secret monitoring infringes on protected workplace rights” (Yerby, 2013, p. 48).  The business the employee works for determines if any laws will preserve their privacy.  For example, the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution may protect an employee if he works for a government agency while the National Labor Relations Act (NRLA) may protect union workers.  It’s not fair that employees of certain companies are protected while others are not.

There are different types of privacy in the workplace including information privacy, interactional privacy, and personal privacy.  Information privacy occurs when the employee determines which of their private information is released to their employer.  It is not ethical for an employer to know every personal detail about their employee.  Interactional privacy keeps thoughtful communication among individuals and group members in a company.  As in the utilitarian theory where actions are useful if they benefit the majority, when all employees contribute to the group, everyone benefits.  Personal privacy involves allowing a person the ability to do what they want on their own time such as a restroom or lunch break without worrying about being monitored.  Monitoring employees while taking such breaks would be unethical since it has nothing to do with their work performance.

 Employee monitoring goes against an employee’s right to autonomy.  This is unethical because employees are denied the freedom to make their own decisions in regard to what’s right or wrong.  “People have autonomy and the capacity to make ethical decisions” (Martinez, 2014, p 27).   For instance, the lack of autonomy was reference in The Brave New World., where people were drugged to eliminate any feelings, negative or positive.  (Shafer-Landau, 2015, p.37).   Books, shows, and close relationships are no longer allowed because they may upset the citizens.  The people may seem happier but they have lost their right to make decisions.  Another example is One flew over the cuckoo’s nest where the hero, McMurphy, resides in a mental institution, and he despises all rules.  (Shafer-Landau, 2015, p.38).  McMurphy soon becomes crushed and agrees to a lobotomy which leaves him without emotion.  Now he views society like a child and seems happier, but he is not better off.  This monitoring can be so stressful that employees may feel they lost personal control in their decision making.  “Viewed with the rights-based approach, e-Surveillance will undermine the right of employees to make their own choices and so is not the right way to control employees’ behavior in the workplace even if it has other benefits” (Martinez, 2014, p.28).

 Many employees find their well-being suffers a decline when they are monitored.  Hartman states that, “Studies have demonstrated a link between surveillance, monitoring and psychological and physical health problems, increased boredom, high tension, extreme anxiety, depression, anger, severe fatigue, and musculoskeletal problems” (Martinez, 2014, p.27).   Stomach problems, fatigue, and headaches, are some more ailments that can occur from the pressures of being monitored.  In addition, vision problems and wrist pain can develop from non-ergonomic equipment. 

Worsnop commented on “A TWA reservation agent who has worked for the same company for 30 years says things have drastically changed.  The reservation agent said that after years of stress from constant monitoring, her work and health suffered.”  She commented that, “I suffered nausea, severe sleep disturbance, weakened eyesight, mental confusion, headaches, muscle aches, exhaustion and lymph node pain.”  (Mishra & Crampton 1998, p. 9). 

These stress related problems are unethical because they are not in the self-interest of the employee.

 Monitoring discourages employees to work in teams because each employee is monitored individually, therefore, personal goals become more important than organizational goals.  Under these circumstances, employees are less likely to help co-workers obtain organizational goals.  In fact, monitoring will boost competition between employees, instead, of working as a team to obtain similar goals. 

“Electronic monitoring is not used in Japan where team work is valued.  Instead, peer pressure, teams, and management feedback pressure workers to perform” (Mishra & Crampton, 1998, p. 11).  

 “Monitoring can create a hostile workplace, possible eliminating the whole point of monitoring in the first place” (Yerby, 2013, p.47).  Negative workplace effects from electronic monitoring include an increased workload, redundant tasks, and social isolation.   Schulman references Michael Meyer’s view that “E-surveillance used to monitor employees will treat them as a means, taking away their privacy and changing the workplace to an environment more like a prison.” (Martinez, 2014, p. 27).  A company that uses electronic monitoring has been compared to Bentham’s panopticon because the employees are constantly in sight and can be watched by their employer at any given time.  Another similarity between a company that uses employee monitoring and the panopticon is the lack of communication between employees.  “People sitting next to each other focusing on their own computer terminal, working on an individual task that is individually timed and monitored, are just as isolated as the prisoners of the panopticon” (Vorvoreanu & Botan, 2000, p. 15).  Although employees, unlike the prisoners, have the capacity to communicate, they will not take a chance because it isn’t a part of their position, therefore, electronic monitoring significantly reduces or even eliminates communication in the company.                A decrease in employee quality and efficiency occurs with electronic monitoring because the emphasis is on speed.  “For example, when Federal Express decided it could cut costs by reducing the average time customer-service agents spend on each call, productivity, quality, and morale suffered” (Mishra & Crampton, 1998, p. 11).  This means employees that are monitored interpreted that the amount of work produced is more of a priority than the quality of the output.  Another example, workers in insurance company, evade claims that are complicated, so they can take more calls.  The equity theory relates the amount of inputs and outputs in a company.   If two co-workers put in the same amount of input, but one of the co-workers receives more outputs such as higher pay or a larger office, the co-worker receiving less outputs may be less motivated to continue to put in the same amount of inputs.  “Person can do this by reducing the only thing that he or she has control over- inputs” (Vorvoreanu & Botan, 2000, p. 17). 

“For example, consider a situation of an employee who has worked with the same company both before and after an electronic surveillance system is implemented.  When comparing the present to the past situations, this employee is likely to perceive that her or his outputs have remained the same while inputs have increased since he or she is more tired at the end of the day because they have been under added stress due to the surveillance” (Vorvoreanu & Botan, 2000, p. 18). 

This means in order for an employee to get the same amount of work done during a workday, he or she has to put more effort in to complete their work.  This can be due to the new stress of being monitored, which can cause distrust between the employee and the employer.  After a matter of time, an employee may become less motivated to put the extra input in. 

“Equity Theory predicts that employees will usually do so by reducing inputs.  That is, the work performed for the company” (Vorvoreanu & Botan, 2000, p.18). 

 “Trust has always defined the relationship between the formal, corporate code of ethics and the personal ethics of employees” (Ariss, Nykodym, & Cole-Laramore, 2002, p. 24).  There are different types of trust.  Lateral trust is the trust between co-workers.  Vertical trust is the trust between a worker and his or her direct supervisor.    Each employee makes their decision to trust their co-worker or supervisor based on their individual interactions with them, however, the trust in the relationship between an employee and the owner of a company is different.  “For most employees, the decision to trust top management is based more on the outcomes of organizational decisions and less on direct personal experience of their character, words, and actions” (Ariss, et al. 2002, p. 24).   Without trust, the moral rule of cooperation is not met.  Most employers feel that their workers’ ethics are sufficient to deter them from going against the company.  Workers view employee monitoring as a lack of self-respect because employers are not trusting them to do their tasks accurately.  This lack of self-respect causes diminished achievement and morale.  “Monitoring for the purpose of rule compliance is coercive and will actually increase tension between employees and management as well as among employees” (Mishra & Crampton, 1998, p. 11).

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 Employee monitoring is a type of discipline.  This form of discipline tries to keep track and govern our lives.  Anti-discipline can be viewed as the defiance of employee monitoring.  This discipline/anti-discipline may vary from one person to another relying on different factors such as the worker’s ethnic background, personality, and company environment.  Sabotage is an example of an anti-discipline behavior because it is a response that dismantles the company’s property.  Two common reasons in regard to people engaging in sabotage- decreasing employee control and an unfavorable business environment.  “Sabotage is more frequent when work is routine, monotonous, tedious, and/or physically dangerous” (Vorvoreaun & Bota, 2000, p.19).  

 Employers attempt to justify using employee monitoring.  One justification is to increase employee productivity.  Monitoring employees isn’t a true indication of their work performance.  If an employee takes a deserved break, the data from electronic monitoring will simply show that the employee is not on a task.  In addition, the data will not show when a worker is not feeling well and is required to step away from their desk.  “The employers get, in a sense, biased and incomplete data” (Yerby, 2013, p.51).  When a worker feels their boss is being unreasonable he or she may only due minimal work to keep their job, furthermore, employers will spend many hours reviewing workers electronic monitoring data which in turn decreases their own efficiency.  A second reason for employee monitoring is to decrease the amount of noncompany use of the internet.  Some employers do not allow workers to use the internet to handle personal matters during work hours.   This may result in employees leaving work early or even call in to work sick.

 Some employers use monitoring to micromanage employees.  For example, some computer programs send a message to employees via an email attachment stating there will be a computer upgrade and this computer will be monitored.  Some employers will disable this message, while other employers will not, to embarrass the employee.  Intentional humiliation of an employee for that reason is unethical.  If the employer’s goal was to benefit the business, he or she would inform the employee of the monitoring, furthermore, most employers do not know how and why to use monitoring effectively. 

According to the Electronic Workplace Survey conducted by Cooper & Hecker in 2012, “From an organizational perspective, of the 52% organizations in the Electronic Workplace Survey that monitored website visits, only 35% had a policy on Internet use.  Where a policy exists, just 33% of organizations provided training in implementing that policy” (Martinez, 2014, p.24).

 As ethics becomes more important due to the increase of virtual companies and automation, businesses have changed the way they interview and select employees.  Before automation, businesses used background checks to make a conclusion about the ethics of a future employee.  Today, automation permits businesses detailed judgements of the ethics of future workers.  For example, automation allows businesses to publish positions on the internet, save resumes and applications, and go through potential employees.  Psychological tests can be used to indicate favorable work-related mindsets to select a favorable candidate.  “Many of those tests are standardized instruments designed to test honesty, integrity, ethics, and other job-related personality traits, and they are easily adapted to electronic administration” (Ariss et al., 2002, p.24).  The company is now able to take this data from the test and determine if the employee would be a good fit for the company.  

“Many managers are turning to software that tracks employee activity, but this can have negative effects on the company.  A more effective and less costly method of ensuring that employees are behaving ethically is to hire employees who have high ethical standards and then establish a bond of trust with them” (Ariss et al., 2002, p. 25). 

 Electronic monitoring has many unfavorable effects including economic loss for the employer, a decrease in employee well-being and morale, and the possibility for unethical actions by both employers and employees.  Privacy and autonomy are moral rights and these rights should be respected in every situation including the workplace.  Electronic monitoring often provides inaccurate data and is not a replacement for effective management.  Employers should use automation as a tool to find ethical employees from the start, instead of using electronic monitoring as a means to humiliate or control their workers.


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