Don’t Monitor Employee Behavior Online*

Organizations should not proactively monitor what their employees are doing online. There’s an asterisk we’ll get to in a moment, but tracking social networking behavior, what sites workers visit, the content of emails, and other electronic behavior should not be on the list of workplace activities.

Now let me be clear: I believe employers have the right to do such things. In most places in the United States, that activity is entirely legal (as I understand it; I am not a lawyer). I’m not arguing against monitoring on the grounds of propriety. Nor do I believe it invades employee privacy. I’m not even going to make the case that it harms employee morale and erodes any hope of an environment of collegial trust (although surely it may).

If you need to track what your employees are doing online, you have hired the wrong people or are managing them poorly.

Every employee will waste time on occasion. Certainly we all take care of personal business from time to time on the company dime. And, of course, everyone makes mistakes — online and offline.

But employers that choose to use technology or human oversight to figure out specifically how employees are spending their online time at the office are essentially throwing their arms up and saying they can’t properly manage the workforce. I strongly believe that as long as an employee is getting the job done in a time that meets the needs of the employer, there ought to be some flexibility.

Moreover, if the concern is the content of online activity, then it likely means that supervisors have failed to properly instruct their teams on proper information handling or that the organization hired individuals without an appropriate level of good judgment.

Here’s the Asterisk

There’s an important pair of exceptions that I ought to note.

1. It is appropriate for an organization to engage in targeted employee monitoring in the event that serious wrongdoing is suspected. If a need exists to confirm a significant policy violation has taken place — or worse, a legal infraction — then it is prudent to use electronic tracking tools to resolve the situation.

2. For jobs in which the consequences of improper use of electronic networks go beyond mere productivity or reputation issues, proactive monitoring may well be required. Examples that come to mind would be jobs where electronic distractions could lead to serious injury or loss of life (think pilots, air traffic controllers, bus drivers, and the like) or threaten national security (for example on classified networks like those of the Central Intelligence Agency or the National Security Agency).

The exceptions don’t apply in most instances, but they are important. There may well be other limited situations in which employee monitoring is reasonably justified, but in most cases the solution is to better hire and manage workers. Understanding the real problems will help improve the organization far more than a formal employee snooping program.