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Ethical To Monitor Employees Whilst In Workplace

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 3101 words Published: 28th Apr 2017

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The development of Information Communication Technology has created new ethical dilemmas due to the out-of-date moral, legal, and social boundaries. These boundaries can be represented by rules and legislation, laws and human nature. The expansion of technology has created a new era of office work. The majority of offices around the world are now filled with newly available technological advances; from personal computers to large network servers. This access to readily available technology has led to a blurring of the boundaries and has created new issues within the workplace. Over the last decade there has been an increase among employers to monitor the actions and performance of their employees. This is due to worries about; quality of work, productivity employee theft or misuse of company property. (Johnson 2008, p.1)

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One of the main ethical issues of the workplace is employee privacy and surveillance. This essay will address the following ethical topic; is it ethical to monitor employees whilst they are in the workplace? This will be addressed in several different ways to make sure that is analysed and evaluated properly. This essay will be constructed in the following way; firstly the definition of Privacy and surveillance will be cross examined. This is to demonstrate the vast area that this topic covers and to supply background information on the ethical issue of employee privacy and surveillance. This will lead into further background information regarding the aspects of employee monitoring, including; the implications of the topic and the methods employed to monitor employees. Once the background research regarding employee monitoring has been analysed the ethical side of the topic will be assed and documented before being summarised and evaluated in a conclusion. The main focus of this essay will to create an argument regarding the issues of employ monitoring and to explore if they are ethically correct or ethically wrong.

Since this topic is based around privacy in the workplace, “privacy” is a key term to be explored. This section of the essay will analyse the definitions of the terms and look for trends and connections relating back to the essay question. An individual’s privacy theoretically descends from the concern of others who may have information relating to the person or is relevant to the person. The Oxford English Dictionary was used to give a rough understanding of the term “Privacy”. The dictionary describes the term “Privacy” as the following;

a state in which one is not observed or disturbed by other people:

she returned to the privacy of her own home

the state of being free from public attention:

a law to restrict newspapers’ freedom to invade people’s privacy

(Oxford Dictionaries, 2005)

This meaning relating to the topic of employee monitoring suggest that monitoring employees would be unethical as monitoring a person stops them from being unable to be disturbed or observed. The definition above isn’t relevant enough to the topic above and should only be used as a rough guide. As a starting point for the topic of Privacy Schoeman’s definition will be examined, as it gives a basic understanding of the word.

A person has privacy to the extent that others have limited access to information about him, limited access to the intimacies of his life, or limited access to his thoughts or his body. (Schoeman, 1984, p. 3)

It suggests that to achieve privacy in the workplace a person’s personal information should be contained with only limited access. From the quote it suggests that employee’s actions at work and outside of it should be only truly known to them. From this quote is it a fair response to suggest that once the employer starts to have access to the employee’s private information that it could lead to distrust and animosity in the workplace. From analysing this quote it suggests that employee monitoring in the work place is un-ethical, as it would allow others to have access to information about a person. Following Shoeman’s ideas, allowing employers to monitor employees would stop the employee from being able to control the access of their information.

Another definition of privacy is defined below:

The condition of not having undocumented personal knowledge about one possessed by others… Personal knowledge… consists of facts about a person which most individuals in a given society at a given time do not want widely known about themselves. (Miller and Weckert, 2000, p.256)

This definition raises issues as it implies that a person’s privacy is only relevant to the society that they find themselves in. This could be their home, workplace or on a larger scale, their country. A person should still be entitled to their privacy regardless of the society; human nature dictates that all humans have the capacity to have secrets or hide secrets. From this a person should be able to hide information from others regardless of their society. Relating this back to the initial essay question it implies that the idea of privacy would again make monitoring employees in the workplace unethical. It would allow the employer access to the employee’s personal knowledge, thus being unethical. This will be explored later when the ideas of privacy are linked to ethical theses.

In the following section the aspects relating to employee monitoring will be analysed and discussed. This will be done by examining the following topics; the implications of the topic and the methods employed to monitor.

Bassick suggests that in Employee Surveillance: An Ethical Consideration it is new methods of employee monitoring that is causing the ethical issues. Bassick states that the need for employee monitoring is down to three main ideas, these being; to maximize worker productivity, ensure the integrity the organization, and to protect the interests of customers and fellow workers. (Bassick et al. 2007) In relation to the topic of ethics it is quite clear to see why this has been turned into an ethical dilemma. Employers feel that they need to survey their employees as can lead to a more profitable and efficient business. On the other hand this can have negative effects on the employees as they can feel more pressurised, over controlled, restricted and unmotivated.

Now the types of surveillance used by employers will be examined and analysed. This will show what causes the main ethical dilemmas, if the key areas of surveillance can be identified then it will be easier to understand what causes them. American Management Association (AMA) in 2007 carried out and published detailed information regarding to the surveillance of employees in the workplace. This information will be used to identify the most used techniques, from this it will identify how the employees are affected.

From AMA’s finding it suggests that employer’s main concern is Web surfing, with 66% monitoring the employee’s web usage. As well as this AMA found that 65% of all participating businesses used software to block inappropriate access to websites. Again this could lead to conflict within the workplace as employees could feel that they have right to access to all websites when they are not on company time, i.e. on a lunch break or after office hours. This could lead to the ethical issue of the freedom of information act as by banning certain sites it reduces the access to publicly know information. (American Management Association 2007)

AMA also explored surveillance relating to keyboard activity, the report concluded that 45% of employers track the employee’s keystrokes. As well as monitoring time at the computer, AMA’s findings found out that 43% of the participating businesses stored their employee’s files and work for further review and analyse.16% of all the participating businesses also record phone conversations. Relating this back to the issue of privacy in the workplace, this is in clear violation of it. By recording employee’s conversations it removes all privacy with relation to calls, for example, a private call from a family member saying somebody in the family is ill, the employer could quite easily be recoding it thus breaking the employee’s privacy.

Of the 43% of companies that monitor e-mail, 73% of them use software to monitor emails and 40% hire an individual to actual analyse and review all the employee emails. (American Management Association 2007) again this could be seen as a breach of privacy. Whilst in the workplace employees tend to receive emails daily, the majority will be work related, but some won’t be. For example, if an employee receives an email about a potential new job, but actually has no intention of applying for it. It could still cause conflict in the workplace as the employer might interpret it as the employee looking for a new job, this could then give the employer the grounds for dismissal.

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Persson and Hansson in ‘Privacy at Work – Ethical Criteria’ looked at the duties of employer’s and their responsibility is the prevention of third parties, from having access to employee’s privacy. Employer’s can state that access to their employee’s information is to reduce unauthorized persons from having access to it. (Persson and Hansson 2003, p.60) This would justify the reasons for having to monitor the employees but would still require surveillance in the first place.

In the Ownership, Privacy and monitoring in the Workplace, Loch Suggests that many employers have the right to monitor their employees. This is because they are being paid to do a job and not achieving this is unproductive. She goes on to suggest that the owners of the companies also own the office supplies, equipment and technology. This gives them the right to monitor how the resources get used and what they are used for. (Loch et al. 1998)

Relating this back to the initial question, it makes perfect sense to agree with what loch says. For example, if a person lends a friend a laptop to help them to do coursework, that person assumes that the friend will use the laptop to do the coursework. This doesn’t stop the friend from using the laptop to do other things, such as, go on Facebook, or access illegal content. The person still owns the laptop even though the friend is using it, this means that the person can ask for it back at any time. They could also monitor the friend to make sure that they keep on task and only use the laptop for the coursework. From an ethical point of view the person could be regarded as a good friend because checking up on the friend could be regarded as being a good friend to make sure that they do well. But relating this to the workplace the same scenario can apply, as the employer monitoring the employees to make sure they keep on task could be seen as good bossing. The employers could also claim that by monitoring employees it reduces the risk of dismissal as the employees are more focused.

Following Loch’s teachings it suggests that employers have a right to see what their employees are doing throughout the day. The main reason for this as it normally leads to an increase in performance levels allowing a business to perform more efficiently. Persson and Hansson suggest that many companies track individual’s keystrokes, email use, web site hits and their movements throughout the building to measure an individual employee’s efficiency. (Persson and Hansson 2003) the ethical implications of this are that it can lead to mistrust and conflict within the workplace; this could lead to an unmotivated workforce.

Through the analyse of the types of employee monitoring and the implications of this in the workplace, it appears that it can be argued by both. Employers can argue that surveillance is necessary to workplace productive and efficiency, whilst protecting employees from third party access. Whereas employees can argue that it is a breach of privacy and that employers shouldn’t be allowed to survey staff as it can have a negative effect on the workplace. To further this argument employee defence must also be considered, this will be carried out by looking at the ethical implications of the topic.

In the 2005 American Management Association survey it concluded that there is no official legislation that makes employee surveillance illegal. But the majority of employees regard it as unethical and an invasion of their privacy. (American Management Association 2005) This could be due to the fact that a lot of employees aren’t aware that they are being surveyed at work, this is then regarded as an ethical dilemma because employees feel that it is their right to know if they are being monitored or not.

Firstly, Miller in ‘Privacy, the Workplace and the Internet In addition’ stated that employees being monitored can suffer from; poor health, stress, and morale problems compared to other employees. Again this raises further ethical implications, is it ethical to monitor employees when it could lead to health implications. This again is a fine line, as some employers will argue that surveillance is a necessity and that the health implications are treatable. Whereas employees will argue that their health is of more importance that the profit of the company, certainly it is an issue, but many companies are happy to overlook a problem to maximise a turnover.

Another ethical implication relating to ethics in the workplace relates to employer-employee trust. Trust can be important in a workplace, as employers must trust employees on a daily basis to carry out their job tasks, to meet deadlines and to cooperate with other employees in the workplace. Employees also feel that not only is surveillance a breach of their privacy but an invasion of their personal space. Miller again identifies this;

There are other important things in life besides efficiency and profitability. In particular, there is the right to privacy. The existence of the right to privacy, and related rights such as confidentiality and autonomy, is sufficient to undermine extreme views such as the view that employees ought to be under surveillance every minute of the day. (Miller and Weckert, 2000)

Employee surveillance is unethical because it takes away many of the rights addressed within this theory. One right stripped away from employees through surveillance is the right to make you own choices. Companies purposely adopt e-mail monitoring, website screening, and GPS tracking technology to eliminate employee’s rights to choose what they want to do.8 Companies do have a need to protect their organizational interests, but forcing employees to act a certain way through surveillance is not the ethical way to control behavior.7 Instead of cameras and monitoring software, an employer following the rights approach should encourage correct behavior by stating what is expected of the employees and then giving them choice to act in a way they feel is right 8.

Employers often tell employees when they are being monitored. What employers often do not tell employees is the extent of the surveillance taking place.2 For example, it is common for a business to state they use e-mail surveillance software but not describe what is appropriate to include in an e-mail, whether or not they are consistently reviewing e-mails, and if they are storing the e-mails for future use. By withholding information, companies are violating the employee’s right to be told the truth.8 Any employer that purposely omits pertinent information is acting unethically. According to the rights approach, companies must not hide any information from an employee. If employee surveillance must be used, it is only right to let the worker know exactly what the company’s policy is on using monitoring technology.8

(Bassick et al. 2007)

Another ethical theory which emphasizes the process of moral character development is virtue ethics. Within this framework, morality is not guided by rules or rights but instead by the concept of character.9 Character, which consists of honesty, fairness, compassion and generosity, drives members of an organization to concern themselves with what to be, as opposed to what to do.9 “Virtue based ethics seeks to produce excellent persons who both act well and serve as examples to inspire others”.9 Actors, those making the ethical decisions, focus on whether rights are deserved as opposed to what the rule book implicitly states.10

Under this theory, privacy can be considered a right that employees deserve. Companies implementing this ethical guidance believe that workers know how to act and display themselves with great character. Therefore, surveillance is unnecessary because employees’ behaviour and decisions will be consistent with the actions of a “good” person 10.

(Knights 2006) 9

(Everett 2006) 10


Technology is an amazing phenomenon. Never before has the human race been so dependent on instruments and gadgets to get through their everyday life. There is no doubt that these advancements have increased the standard of living and made many of our everyday activities far more convenient. With this convenience has come a greater threat of privacy invasion. Simply because a new technology has increased our potential, does not make these new abilities ethical. As citizens of the United States, whether stated by law or a common ethical framework, deserve the right to keep certain things private. There is currently a vague line that distinguishes what is and is not considered private material, information, or knowledge. In order to give all citizens equal rights these definitions must be more clearly stated and understood by all. The ambiguity that currently exists between employer surveillance programs and employee knowledge of such monitoring must be eliminated. More than anything it is important that people know what activity is being watched and what is not. As our abilities increase, our moral and ethical thinking must accompany this growth. We must have a sense of responsibility to maintain two of the greatest natural rights that we posses; privacy and autonomy.


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