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Bahaudin G. Mujtaba, Nova Southeastern University
Employee monitoring, due to the increase in cyberloafing and lawsuits, has become more widespread and much easier with the use of new and cheaper technologies. Both employers and employees are concerned with the ethical implications of constant monitoring. While employers use monitoring devices to keep track of their employees' actions and productivity, their employees feel that too much monitoring is an invasion of their privacy. Thus, the ethics of monitoring employees is explored and current practices are discussed. This document further provides suggestions for reducing cyberloafing and encourages institutions to create and effectively communicate ethical standards for employee monitoring in their firms. The author has included actual samples of employees' perceptions and feelings from the surveys and discussions on being monitored.
Employee monitoring has emerged as a necessity and yet as a very controversial issue due to the complexity and widespread use of technology. Employee monitoring is the act of watching and monitoring employees' actions during working hours using employer equipment/property (Raposa & Mujtaba, 2003). Employers are concerned with proper employee behavior and Code of Conduct compliance in relation to their industries and related organizations. While more and more employers are using monitoring devices to check or keep track of their employees' actions, some employees feel that too much monitoring is an invasion of their privacy. Many employees are anxious about the status of their stocks and/or the safety of their family members around the world since the attacks of September 11, 2001 on the Twin Towers in New York City and feel obligated to watch the latest news on the Internet while on the job. While exceptional circumstances can be tolerated by the employers, they also feel that excess use of the Internet for non-job related activities while on the job can be destructive for their firm. The Orlando Sentinel (1999) stated that cost for employees surfing the Internet, during work hours using company equipment and time, in large industries could be as much as one billion dollars each year. Thus, the ethics of monitoring employees is explored and ethical dimensions of this issue are presented in order to provide a full picture of this practice. Furthermore, throughout the document there are discussions about future evolvement of employee monitoring with the emergence of new technology.
Webster's Illustrated Contemporary Dictionary states the definition of ethics as the basic principles of right actions. Values are things regarded as desirable, worthy, or right, as a belief or an ideal. Morals pertain to character and behavior from society's view of right and wrong. A belief is the acceptance of something as real or actual. Ethics can also be the decision making of actions based on a set of values, morals, and beliefs that a person possesses. This document highlights a corporation's need for ethical standards, the application of those standards, the ethical treatment of its stakeholders (employees, customers, and/or suppliers), and the impact of the law on employee monitoring. Why is employee monitoring an emerging ethical issue? It is an ethical issue due to the emergence and introduction of new technology available to both employees and employers that can be misused and abused.
Lim (2002) mentioned that, "anecdotal evidence suggests that the Internet is a double-edged sword which companies should deploy freely to employees with caution." While Internet is the best thing that has happened since "sliced bread", it is also the biggest international playground for adults of all hobbies. A survey of 1,000 American workers revealed that 64% of those with Internet access tend to use it for personal interests during working hours. A question to start with is "can technology change or influence our sense of values, morals, or ethics?" The answer would be yes since technology can influence our actions and behaviors as it already has in many cases. Actions and behaviors, in turn, tend to form our values, ethics and ultimately our character.
We all live in a technologically advanced world in which informed and just decisions have to be made about very technical and enormously complicated issues. One major concerrn that has been voiced repeatedly regarding technolgical advances is use of the Internet and privacy issues.
Anyone (at work or home) who uses your computer or has access to it can find out why you have been using it. Every time you use the Internet your Internet activities are being recorded and every picture you've seen while you are on-line is probably copied to your computer's hard drive and connected servers. For example, every website you've visited on-line is often recorded into a secret file in Windows and is usually added to your drop down list. Even your homepage could be changed and you can be tracked from anywhere in the world.
While many people think of e-mail as a convenient alternative to a telephone conversation and just as private (although many professional telephone calls are monitored as well) there is a big difference. E-mail is as public as a postcard and leaves a written record long after it has been erased. Any skilled person can recover the e-mail message's ghost somewhere deep in the bowels of a networked system. And so far, businesses seem to have the perfect right to do so, according to the law and recent court rulings. Pushing the delete button doesn't do much, because we usually find a copy somewhere else on the system.
According to a study conducted by ComStore Networks, 59% of on-line sales in 2002 were conducted from the shopper's workplace. Peak Internet access from work occurred between 10 A.M. and Noon. That means many employees are taking advantage of employer-provided access to the Web to conduct distinctly non-work related business. This includes shopping, bidding on on-line auctions, booking travel, visiting chat rooms, writing personal e-mails or just surfing the Internet as a hobby. One company in Seattle, N3H3, which tracks lost productivity, estimates that conducting personal business and surfing at work costs the typical 1000 employee company approximately 11 million dollars a year (Future Magazine 2003) and another study totals this to about 63 billion dollars each for American firms.
There are however legitimate individuals in many firms that are required to surf the net to check out the industry, their customers, their suppliers, their competitors and so on. One example would be "Shared Software authors that write software and then share their work over the Internet, more or less for free. While technicians and group support system facilitators often fill formal roles within organizations, the role of shared software authors is less defined and often falls completely outside of formal organizational boundaries. Their role is bounded by the needs created by new technology, is played out over electronic communication networks, and is exemplified by demonstrations of commitment. Their role in the social exchange of information over the Internet and World Wide Web has not changed much over the last few years, but their influence on society has increased along with the influence of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Shared software authors are a unique set of people whose behavior is not easily explained with conventional models.
The Internet first began forming in 1969, when the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects agency (DARPA) began looking for a way to create a dependable communications network with multiple-backups to survive a nuclear war. At issue was the fact that no matter how completely the network was protected, surviving a nuclear attack seemed impossible (Sterling, 1995). Sterling explains the development of the Internet by stating that about 34 years ago "the RAND Corporation, America's foremost Cold War think-tank, faced a strange strategic problem. How could the US authorities successfully communicate after a nuclear war?" As a result, the Internet essentially began in 1969 with four nodes on the network. Throughout the 1970s, the network grew, aided by the spread of the personal computer. The decentralized structure made expansion easy since it could accommodate many different kinds of machines. The following are some key dates in Internet history:
The use of the Internet exploded for many reasons. One is freedom to explore and communicate with thousands of global organizations and individuals simultaneously in the cheapest way possible. There is no "Internet, Inc." There are no bosses, censors, or boards of directors. In principle, any node can talk to any other node so long as the technical protocols are followed. The Internet is also cheap. It doesn't charge for long distance service. In fact, the "Internet" itself, which does not even officially exist as an entity, does not charge for anything. The Internet belongs to everyone and to no one thus the reason for mass explosion. This also raises the issue of regulation.
Today the Internet has expanded around the world. As its use grew, the issue of regulation came to the forefront. Since the United States created the Internet, it took the leading role in proposing a method of Internet regulation known as self-regulation. The self-regulation concept suggests that the Internet Community - mainly engineers, software developers, analysts, network specialists, administrators, and users, determine the standards, codes of ethics, and direction of the Internet, with minimal government participation, input and control (Eko, 2001).
The concept of self-regulation for Internet was first proposed by President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. Support for it, and belief in it, has been mixed. Jason Cartlett, president and founder of Junkbusters, a Breen Brook (N.J.) Internet-privacy advocacy group pleaded the case for more stringent regulation. Cartlett (1999) stated unequivocally, "self-policing is an optimistic delusion, and it flies in the face of all experience on the Internet" (Internet Regulation: Will It Hinder or Help Small Businesses?). He stated that the worst cases are those of spammers who behave in an unethical manner and will not stop unless taken to court for violation of specific laws.
Spam is indeed a huge concern to Internet users. Spam is defined as "unsolicited commercial bulk e-mail" and consists of advertisements that marketers blindly send to large mailing lists. There will be 76 billion spam emails sent worldwide in 2003 (Metz & Selzer, 2003). While spam is maddening and time consuming, stopping spam is extremely difficult. In addition, a fine line exits between putting restrictions on worthless and annoying junk e-mail (or even forcing such messages to be prefixed by the header ADV, for advertisement) and banning the distribution of information that has the potential to be socially valuable. Direct marketers make the point that restricting spam completely limits consumer choices and the free market.
However, those who favor regulation often do so in the interest of protecting privacy rights. As a society, Americans generally value privacy (Hartman, 2001 p. 407). In 1986 Congress enacted the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). The purpose of the act was to extend privacy protections against wiretapping to new forms of electronic communication such as e-mail and data transmission, from improper interception. In general the ECPA prohibits interception of wire, oral, and electronic communications, as well as disclosure or use of such intercepted communications. While electronic communication is covered by the ECPA, still unresolved is the use of spammers and advertisers of personal information provided voluntarily and then sold or "rented."
Consumer choice and free speech are at the heart of the arguments against Internet regulation. In an article by the American Civil Liberties Union (Roleff, 1999) the ACLU argues that free speech is threatened by software programs that would rate or block controversial material on the Internet. The ACLU contends the notion that citizens should "self-rate" their speech is contrary to the entire history of free speech in America. The ACLU asserts that Internet content should be afforded the "highest constitutional protection." Others agree. Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, believes that congressional assurances of no Internet regulation will help promote the development of advanced telecommunication services nationwide (Fusco, 1999).
International considerations further complicate attempts to regulate Internet materials. The geographical dispersion of the Internet eliminates the jurisdiction of any one country. Billions of bytes of data are sent across country borders every day without the authorization, or even knowledge, of the countries involved. An example: after a group of record companies managed to shut down Napster for copyright infringement in 2002, they took another file-sharing service, Kazaa, to court in 2001. They discovered that Sharman Networks, the distributor of the software is incorporated in the South Pacific, and managed from Australia. The computer servers are in Denmark; its source code is thought to be stored in Estonia, and its developers live in the Netherlands. The service had 60 million users in 150 countries. Even if an American court decides against Kazaa, it may not be able to enforce its judgment (Through a Glass Darkly, 2003). Issues like this are widespread since the Internet has "no central authority" and is in numerous countries across the globe.
The core issue of Internet regulation is control. The Internet is too widespread to be dominated by any one government or country. The Internet creates a world community that is borderless and cannot be regulated by any one entity. It challenges the idea of the nation-state. The Internet offers the ability of everyone or anyone to express to the rest of the world whatever they believe. It provides both an intellectual and economic liberty that might just undo all the authoritarian powers on earth. If, however, regulation and censorship prevail, the potential consequences will exceed merely controlling abuses of Internet at work and pornography. "Any system of control that can stop us from writing dirty words online is a system that can control our collective conversation in other more frightening ways. If any nation-state can perfect a method to exercise this control, they may own enough of the mind of mankind to perpetuate themselves far beyond their usefulness" (Barlow, 1997).
Many have been using the phrase "we live in an age of discontinuity". It basically means that we live in an age of change and disconnection from the past. Things are changing faster than ever before and in ways we could not anticipate, and that these changes have wide-ranging effects. Such as, beginning in the early 1970s, with the overnight quadrupling of world oil prices, economic shocks have continued to impose changes on organizations. Or, recent economic problems of the late 1980s and early 1990s in Russia, Asia, and Latin America that have rocked world stock markets. Through the use of technology, information travels instantaneously throughout our organizations, industries and countries. This can create many ethical issues when misused.
As this decade and millennium move forward, exciting technological advancements and changes are taking place daily. Many of our professional and personal tasks are becoming even more convenient and quicker to perform. Online shopping sales through the Internet are skyrocketing, and many Americans seem to be in a race to see who can get the newest gadgets first. Yet, as people scramble for the newest item that will make their lives easier, ethics and morality issues seem to be slowly deteriorating as we see the leaders of giant firms being handcuffed and taken to jail for wrongdoings. With things like Television, the Internet, computers, Electronic and Voice mail, people seem to be relying on technology more and more everyday and less on face-to-face interactions. Unfortunately, along with the benefits of technology, come several ethical issues, including employee monitoring, that people (including employers) have to deal with in the coming years.
Cyberloafing at work. Much of the research has been devoted to how technological advancements have created a new efficient workplace, revolutionizing the ways in which work is being carried out, and how employees can improve their productivity while enjoying their work. However, the advent of technology has also opened up new avenues and opportunities for individuals to misbehave (Lim, 2002). According to Robbins (2001), "Social loafing" is the tendency for individuals to expend less effort when working collectively than when working individually. Causes of social loafing can include a belief that others in the group are not carrying their fair share; the dispersion of responsibility, the relationship between an individual's input and the group's output is clouded; and the belief that there will be a reduction in efficiency where individuals think that their contribution cannot be measured. While teams can be involved in social loafing online, many individuals are certainly involved in "cyberloafing" while ignoring their own responsibilities as determined by their employers.
The study of cyberloafing. "The act of employees using their companies' Internet access for personal purposes during work hours" focuses on a form of production deviance (Lim, 2002). Using the theoretical frameworks offered by social exchange, organizational justice and neutralization, Lim examined the often-neglected dark side of the Internet and the role that neutralization techniques play in facilitating this misbehavior at the workplace. Specifically, Lim developed a model which suggested that when employees perceived their organizations to be distributively, procedurally and interactionally unjust, they were likely to invoke the metaphor of the ledger as a neutralization technique to legitimize their subsequent engagement in the act of cyberloafing. Data were collected with the use of an electronic questionnaire and focus group interviews from 188 working adults with access to the Internet at the workplace. Lim concluded that leaders and managers should understand the cumulative effect of cyberloafing in their firms in order for the Internet to work for, and not against, the company.
Privacy at work. One issue, in regards to technology, is the loss of privacy at work. Currently, most employers feel it is their right to read and intercept private Electronic and Voice Mail of their employees. It is understandable that workers often feel as if their rights were violated if personal e-mail was intercepted or read without their permission. However, many employers feel that by reading e-mail, they may be able to prevent personal use or abuse of company resources, employee theft, and/or espionage. If the company is publicly traded, employers must ensure employees are abiding by the rules set forth by the Securities and Exchange Commission, in order to protect trade secrets and proprietary information. Yet, employees feel differently about this issue. They feel that if e-mail is addressed to their name, no one else has the right to read it. Ethical issues arise regarding the right to privacy. Legislation has been brought forth to try and resolve such issues, but the debate rages on. Many companies still intercept e-mail and voice mail, based on legislation that states that if an organization gives prior consent, they protect themselves against the risk of liability, by notifying employees their e-mails may be read (Hartman, 2001). An example might be the "Capital One Ethics Policy" regarding Electronic Mail and Voice Mail. The policy states: "Capital One expressly reserves the right to access, monitor, retrieve, read, or listen to and delete any communication created, received, or sent in the electronic and voice mail systems" (Capital One Ethics Policy, received July 26, 2002). According to various Ethical Theories, employers should be "faithful agents to client interests" (Guthrie, 2002, p.1). Hence, this includes employees, (internal clients) as well. Perhaps management should consider the feelings of workers, before they unethically view, or listen to private mail, of any kind.
Information technology. Along with the issue of lack of privacy at work, is the loss of privacy in general, due to emerging technology. With the emergence of information technology, "vast amounts of data are accessible to businesses and their employees" (Cronan & Kreie, 2000, p. 66). Normal use of this information may result positively for customers. However, businesses are still concerned with the "potential misuse of information technology" by customers, vendors, competitors, and suppliers (Cronan & Kreie, 2000, p. 66). This misuse can stem from neglect or malice, on the part of the employee or any other stakeholder of the firm. Yet, in many instances, some of the unethical acts "are the results of an individual's uncertainty or misunderstanding of appropriate behavior" (Henry & Pierce, 2000, p. 307). Hence, businesses should be sure to incorporate ethics policies and training anywhere that information technology is available. It is evident that with emerging technologies, arise several (new) ethical concerns for employees and employers. To combat these potential issues, clear ethics policy and training are necessary. With proper instruction and training, employees can learn that ethical reasoning means doing what is morally right, even in the face of powerful selfish desires (Elder, 1999, p. 4).
The following are some general comments gathered from a total of 38 individuals (in four different groups) on a discussion about cyberloafing and whether their firms had an Internet Policy at work. The participants were working professionals pursuing a Masters degree on-line in technology management or Organizational Management. They were 25 years of age or older and had at least six years of full-time work experience. Six participants were managers and the rest were full-time employees in various service related fields. There were 13 female and 25 males in the groups. The discussion sought their thoughts on cyberloafing, their understanding of privacy issues at work, and whether their firms had specific policies about cyberloafing.
According to Hartman (2001, p. 404), concerns about "privacy protection is not a new issue, and employee privacy encompasses a spectrum of issues including: Drug testing, searches of employees and their work areas, psychological testing, telephone, computer, and electronic monitoring, and other types of employee surveillance." Much of the research showcases the ethics of privacy in the workplace in regards to employee monitoring of workstations, e-mail, voice mail, computer documents, telephone, and similar types of surveillance. To fully understand the scope of this issue, the reasons why an employer would choose to monitor employees should be discussed and understood. Researchers need to understand both employer and employees' views on monitoring.
As reported by the American Management Association, a survey was conducted in 2001, to determine the forms of employee monitoring in place and the reasons why employers would monitor (Raposa and Mujtaba, 2003). Management respondents stated the following:
|Areas of Monitoring||Percentage|
|Monitored Internet connections||61.6%|
|Monitored the storage and review of e-mail messages||46.9%|
|Monitored the storage and review of computer files||3.63%|
|Engaged in video recording of employee job performance||11.7%|
|Monitored telephone conversations||8.5%|
|Monitored storage and review of voice mail messages||7.6%|
Over all, 77.7% of management respondents stated that they engaged in some form of employee surveillance or electronic monitoring.
Among the highest reported reasons for employee monitoring have been:
Legal Liability ranked the highest concern by managers at 68.3%, and performance review ranked as a concern by 45.3% of respondents in the survey (AMA, 2002). Some extremely interesting figures shed more light on management's concern of employee's activities. Research shows that thirty to forty percent of Internet use in the workplace is not related to business activities of the organization (Employee Monitoring Solutions, 2002). An increase in employee shopping via the Internet at work has increased from 12% in 1999 to almost 25% in 2001 (EMS, 2002). Employee Monitoring Systems continues to state that on-line shoppers like the "convenience of the faster connection speed."
Various researchers have suggested that industries could be wasting up to one billion dollars each year because of Internet surfing for non-job related activities. Others estimate the cost to the American economy could be as high as 63 billion dollars each year for cyberloafing. Cyberloafers need not be absent from their offices or desks since the computer provides them the world's biggest playground and personal work opportunities. Lim (2002) states that cyberloafers in their virtual travels away from the office "may–unwittingly or otherwise–visit sites which expose the organization to legal liabilities and to the dangers posed by computer viruses." Lim goes on to say that "cyberloafers may pose a greater threat to the organization relative to the other types of loafers, in terms of productivity losses and cost incurred." Beside such losses, employers are greatly concerned with sensitive and confidential information being sent outside of the company to its competitors, vendors, suppliers, and customers; thus employees harming the company. According to Gahtan's (1997) article titled "Monitoring Employee Communication", there have been instances where employees were sending confidential information and corporate trade secrets through an employer's e-mail systems to other employees or friends. Furthermore, employees have been caught using an employer's Internet facilities to start and/or operate their own businesses while on the job. Gahtan offers further reasoning for employee monitoring by stating, "…employers may also find that they could be held liable for e-mail or Internet-related activities of their employees" regardless of whether the employer was aware such activities or not. Gahtan offers recent lawsuits as excellent reasons for employer concern.
Many software solutions are available to assist employers in monitoring. For example, "Spector Pro" has the only advanced warning system that will let you know immediately when your spouse, kids, or employees are behaving inappropriately online (EMS, 2002). This software can record e-mail outside of the company's intranet e-mail system. It can record the web sites viewed and messages on Hotmail, AOL E-mail, Yahoo E-mail, Outlook E-mail, and many instant messenger services. Snapshots of screens visited can be taken for future evidence as well. Other software available can record usage times, every stroke that is typed, and remotely monitor and shutdown an application! Regardless of format or software, all activities related to employee monitoring, like surveillance, is a highly complicated and controversial way to gather information for an investigation (CCH Business Owners Toolkit, 2001).
Based upon structured interviews conducted with managers of 66 companies that allowed Internet access to their employees by Mirchandani & Motwani, (2003), there are many measures available for organizations to reduce Internet abuse. The following table has the list of measures used by firms to reduce Internet abuse (Mirchandani & Motwani, 2003) along with the percentage of firms surveyed that use such measures (ranked from most used to least used measure).
|Measure to Reduce Internet Abuse||% Using measure|
|1. Have a written company manual / policy sheet / employee handbook / memorandum stating that the Internet at work is to be used for work related purposes only||42.2%|
|2. Have manager reprimand employees who abuse the Internet at work||29.2%|
|3. Monitor with special software all the websites visited by employees||26.6%|
|4. Limit Internet access to only certain employees upon their supervisors' consent||25%|
|5. Take away Internet privileges of employees who abuse the Internet at work||24%|
|6. Block access to non-work related and offensive websites by using Internet Filters||23.4%|
|7. Terminate employees who abuse the Internet at work||22.4%|
|8. Have employees sign a form stating that they will abstain from visiting offensive websites while at work||21.4%|
|9. Monitor with special software all the e-mails of employees||20.8%|
|10. Have employees agree to accept the company's Internet Use Policy when logging into their computers||18.7%|
|11. Allow but limit personal Internet usage to employees in their free time, or after work hours, or in emergencies||17.2%|
|12. Monitor electronic files downloaded on the computers of employees to identify if they are non-work related||16.7%|
|13. Monitor with special software what every computer in the company is being used for at a particular time||15.1%|
|14. Have employees who access Internet-enabled computers at work to log their name, time in, time out, and the reason for using the Internet||6.8%|
|15. Use an "Internet cop" to police the workplace for Internet abuse||5.7|
|16. Arrange seminars, staff meetings, and show videotapes to educate new and current employees about Internet abuse||4.7%|
|17. Have employees with Internet access at work fill out weekly log sheets describing their Internet usage||1.6%|
|18. Watch on camera all employees using the Internet||0.5%|
In the year 2000, the author worked as a Senior Training Specialist for a giant retailer, ranked by Times Magazine as one of the top 100 best companies to work for in America, there were about 35 employees and computers in the department but only five computers had external Internet access. Employees had to make appointments to use the PCs with Internet connection for specific purposes/research. Use of Internet for personal reasons was not allowed.
Employees are concerned with their privacy in the workplace. In many cases, their concerns are very valid. "Employers want to be sure their employees are doing a good job, but employees do not want their every sneeze or trip to the water cooler logged" (Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, 2002). Employees feel that their every move is exposed and being watched. Is this a healthy or ethical work environment for people? About 41 percent of employee respondents say employers are not doing what they should to protect personal privacy (AFL-CIO, 2002). Employees feel that there may be too many restrictions put on them in the workplace. Employees of Northwest state that they are monitored on how long their calls are and how long they remain at their desks taking calls. In one telecommunication firm, they utilized an Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) computer system to manage customer call volumes and customer service representative availability. Where the ethical dilemma enters this scenario is how and why the ACD monitors employees. Some firms such as Verizon and Publix may require certain amount of time available for incoming calls. The ACD can be utilized to determine the existence of unethical behavior such as closing out to avoid taking calls, making personal calls or hanging up on customers. To the employees, it feels like Big Brother watching. "Workers have high blood pressure and are taking anti-depressants from the stress" of their jobs and uncertainly in today's work environment (Profiles AFL-CIO, 2002). Furthermore, often employees feel using the Internet for personal hobbies is a form of relaxation and it is one benefit of working for such low pay. Several University employees felt that since they are not paid well and things are always slow using the Internet to pay bills, check the movies, and stay updated on the news is OK. Research has shown that when employees do not feel valued or appreciated by their employers, they are likely to be involved in such acts and legitimize their cyberloafing activities. The following are actual comments from employees of several large organizations, including two Universities, who seem to think cyberloafing is justified because they are not being treated well or because they don't earn enough income for their hard work.
Lim (2002) concludes that employees can easily convince themselves that cyberloafing is not an unacceptable act and it does not cost the company much since it is already paid for. Furthermore, employees who are not satisfied or feel they are not paid fairly for their work simply see cyberloafing as a means of "cashing in these accumulated credits and view it as a fair entitlement." On April 19, 2003, FOX News reported that there has been a 28% increase in bank robberies this year compared to 2002 due to the bad economy. Bad economy may further increase the reasons for employees to behave unethically and reason that they deserve it. These days, many employees search the Internet for other job opportunities while at work. This can be very time consuming as a study of university students found that students spend an average of four hours on a company's website during the job search looking at their mission, vision, rules, policies and cultural mores (Brice and Waung, 2002).
Monitoring employees can have ill effects on employees. It can "…inject an air of suspicion and hostility into the workplace" (Schulman, 2001). Monitoring can deter cyberloafing and, at the same time, it can be counterproductive as it can cause resentment in employees at being treated like children (Lim, 2002). The culture can become one of a mistrust and hostile work environment when employees do not see the justification of monitoring. Businesses may be opening themselves up to lawsuits for such situations when the policies are not clear or if they are not communicated effectively to everyone. Should a company be telling employees that they are monitoring? The answer is yes since employees have a right to know. Is it ethical to monitor? Ethically speaking, if monitoring deters misbehavior and produces better results for the employee, the owners, the customers, and other relevant stakeholders, then it can be ethical. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) became a law in 1986. It "…prohibits the interception of electronic communications" (Cotton, 2002). "The ECPA has three major exceptions that limit the actual protection afforded to employee e-mail: the provider exception, the prior-consent exception, and the business-use exception" (Cotton, 2002).
Legislation to regulate electronic monitoring in the workplace have been filed in several states. In Massachusetts, a bill (2231) on electronic monitoring is currently being reviewed since January 28, 2002 (MA state website 2002). "If an electronic mail (e-mail) system is used at a company, the employer owns it and is allowed to review its contents" (Privacy Rights Clearinghouse). The American Civil Liberties Union has a task force on Civil Liberties in the Workplace. Milinda Shah, a spokesperson for this taskforce said the ECPA "…prohibits employers from using 'information gathered from private calls for business reasons, for employment purposes'" (Hartman, 2001, p. 349). What can or cannot be monitored is another issue currently in our courts.
While considering employee monitoring, it is important to relate it to ethical theories for clear understanding of the ethics and ethical dilemmas which employers and employees face. Here, two issues exist: The issues are the ethics of employer monitoring and the ethics of certain employee behavior. Utilitarian theory of ethics, which is consequence based, would suggest that employers take the course of action that produces the greatest good for the greatest number of relevant stakeholders. An employee's choice to act ethically or unethically is strongly connected to Kant's theory of Categorical Imperative. This theory is the notion that every person should act on only those principles that she or he, as a rational person, would prescribe as universal laws to be applied to the whole of mankind. Kant's theory or moral rule is independent of its outcome. It stands on the principles themselves. An employee who follows his/her company's policies because it is the right thing to do falls into Kant's theory. Here, the theory is measured by the "rightness" of rules, rather than by consequences of them (Mujtaba, 1997).
As we saw in the case of Roe versus Wade, even in society there are differences in ethical values, as there are in the workplace and in our personal lives. These values govern our behavior and are a large part of how we see others and ourselves. Our beliefs can separate us or bring us closer together, depending on how they align with or against the ethical values of others. These values are so deeply held by and ingrained in us that to attempt to change them would be difficult, if not impossible, in most instances. Persons that change a belief that they have held through their lifetime do so, not because they are coerced or opposed, but because through their own thought processes, and sometimes their heart, they determine that their values must change. People can be told by law, policy and other formal methods how they must act, as was the case in Roe versus Wade, and many will comply, but they will not change their deeply held values because they are told by law that one value has priority over another.
Ethical decision-making must always include respect for the basic rights of individuals and consideration for differences in culturally inherited and individually held moral standards. When a decision comes into conflict with individual or societal ethics, there must be an understanding of the conflicts and a compassionate assessment of the impacts the decision will have on other's principles. In a case where there are ethics that are contrary to one another, such as the Roe versus Wade example, the two sides must be weighted and a decision made as to which has priority.
Immanuel Kant, the eighteenth century philosopher, maintained that each of us has a worth or a dignity that must be respected. As quoted from the interpretations of his works by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, which states that humanity's morality has dignity. Abbott stated, "…from the idea of the dignity of a rational being, obeying no law but that which he himself also gives… In the kingdom of ends everything has either value or dignity. Now morality is the condition under which alone a rational being can be an end in himself, since by this alone is it possible that he should be a legislating member in the kingdom of ends. Thus morality, and humanity as capable of it, is that which alone has dignity." This worth and dignity includes our differences in ethical standards. By taking into consideration everyone's ethical and moral standards, including our own, in decision-making we are valuing these differences and in doing so come to conclusions that are unbiased, fairly based and as true to others as possible.
Kant believed that an action that was right for one person was then right for every person. This thinking was based on the assumption that people were "rational" thinkers and would evaluate and surmise a system of rules or principles. This theory falls under the deontological category. Deontological theories "determine the ethics of an act by looking to the process of the decision (the means)" (Hartman, 2001). Through critical thinking, employees decide upon an action based on their own belief systems or understanding of their belief systems. However, to determine whether an action is clearly right or wrong is not always easy for many individuals due to the complexity of the issues involved; therefore, clearly documented and communicated policies/laws act as the guiding force.
Lawrence Kohlberg, an American psychologist, has devised a theoretical framework that describes development in moral reasoning. Kohlberg's theory consists of six stages of moral reasoning. The stages are sequential and invariable in their order.
These six stages can offer guidelines for all individuals to make decisions that are in stage four or above. In the case of employee monitoring applied to stage 4, one would believe that such monitoring by the employer would lead to information for the common good. It is at Stage 5 that the courts may determine that the privacy rights of employees are violated if the employers go too far without the employees' awareness that they are being monitored. In stage six, one would make a decision that appeals to the universal ethical principles of doing what is right.
Ethics "involves honest consideration to underlying motive, to possible potential harm, and to congruency with established values and rules" (Mujtaba, 1997). With this said, one could reason that employees use of voice-mail or e-mail for private use is unethical. Could the employee be putting other people or the company in danger? Is the employee being unproductive or misusing company time as well? Does the company forbid it? Is the employee's activity more of a broken law? The answer to this last question would depend on the content of the call, e-mail, phone call or voice-mail. Is the employer engaging in employee monitoring to protect the good of the company? A graduate student in Tampa, who was a middle manager for his firm in that city, was terminated because monitoring devices had shown that he had used the company's computer and printer for school projects more than once. He had been with the firm for over three years and their policy stated that using the company's products for personal use was strictly prohibited. The irony was that he was being reimbursed for one hundred percent of his tuition at a private institution. So, it appears they were complying with the letter of their laws rather than its intention (possibly to make an example to other employees).
Employee monitoring can be viewed as a type of policing to ensure the good of all and to ensure that misuse and stealing do not occur. It can be applied loosely to the ethical theory that this type of activity has the end result in mind. The teleological theory of utilitarianism can support the ethical nature of employee monitoring in that it "seeks as its end the greatest good (or utility) for the greatest number" (Hartman, p. 2). Monitoring ensures the company will remain in compliance with the law, avoid possible liabilities, stop employee stealing of documents, time or resources, and employee monitoring may assist a company in prospering due to increased productivity. "Unethical acts and the related discipline of them can consume enormous amounts or organizational human and financial resources (e.g. lawsuits, effects of employee morale, compromise of corporate information) and may lead to unfavorable public images of the organization" (Pierce and Henry, 2000).
If someone is being harmed, threatened, or quality of life is adversely affected, this may not be an unethical act. Employers need to ensure that a hostile work environment is not occurring due to inappropriate e-mail, voice-mail, or Internet activities. With this said, monitoring is ethical within reason. Employees need to behave professionally and ethically in the work place. Monitoring should only be done as a check and balance measure to ensure high ethical standards. Respect to employee's privacy, within reason, needs to be a consideration. The ethics of the invasion of an employee's privacy is very controversial. If an employee is doing nothing unethical or illegal, is it fair to be monitored at all times? In defense of monitoring, an employer could state that it is conducting monitoring to ensure all employees' behavior resembles this good employee's behavior. Employers could also state that it would be unethical and unfair to allow wrongdoing when good employees, such as in this example, are working hard and behaving ethically. Is everyone carrying the workload fairly or to the best of his or her abilities?
Many organizations lack a clear vision of how to deal with cyberloafing and Internet abuse (Mirchandani & Motwani, 2003); however, some firms like Lockheed Martin and Zerox Corporation are strictly implementing Internet policies with such measures as terminating employees who violate them. The deterrence theory (borrowed from criminology) suggest that sanctions and disincentive measures may very well reduce cyberloafing and other forms of Internet abuse when potential abusers are fully aware that their unethical behavior will lead to their employment termination (Mirchandani & Motwani, 2003). According to this general theory, firms can use deterrence, prevention, detection, and remedies to reduce system related risks in their firms. Monitoring devises can incorporate all of these strategies to reduce and eliminate cyberloafing. Most firms have the means to track the Internet usage of their employees but choose not to do so because of the amount of effort and work involved.
Employee monitoring is a necessity in many industries for many firms due to different reasons and variables if they are to remain competitive in today's competitive global world of business. The future of employee monitoring is still a bit unclear due to pending legislature and emerging issues and ethical considerations. However, current, surveys show a need for some form of monitoring to ensure proper employee behavior so the firm's are not jeopardizing themselves (Raposa & Mujtaba, 2003). For example, the largest vendor of employee-monitoring software, Websense (San Diego, CA) estimates that American businesses are likely to lose approximately $63 billion each year due to personal web surfing (loafing or better yet "cyberloafing" on the job) by their employee while on the job (Schulman, 2002). Schulman states "…There does not appear to have been an impartial study that attempted to measure the scope of personal web surfing at work, and thereby determine whether this explanation for workplace surveillance is justified." Could employee-monitoring vendors be advertising to gain more business? With this said, employee monitoring in itself is a big business that may have a bigger future. Only time will tell. "How private are employees e-mail messages? This lack of clarity means that protection of employee e-mail will be at the forefront of legal controversy for at least the rest of the decade" (Hartman, 2001, p. 404).
In weighing both the advantages and disadvantages of employee monitoring, a few recommendations are appropriate as a starting place. There are several measures that have been suggested (for employees and employers) that both prevent and deter losses and the negative implications of employee monitoring. Business leaders can and should encourage ethical decision-making by having a written code of ethics and providing ethics training, such as discussions of ethical scenarios, to help employees understand what is expected. In addition, businesses should consider providing practical support to employees for handling ethical issues when it comes to the use of company properties such as computers, fax machines, e-mail, etc. Company property, which is essential in accomplishing job duties, is expensive and may be difficult to replace. When using company property, employees should exercise care, perform required maintenance, and follow all operating instructions, safety standards, and guidelines. Prompt reporting of damages, defects, and the need for repairs could prevent deterioration of equipment and possible injury to employees or others.
Company Computers are to be used for business purposes only. Loading of any programs or the downloading of any data onto company computers without company consent should be prohibited. All data stored on company computers or servers are the property of that organization. The transfer of any data from company servers or computers without a legitimate business purpose should also be prohibited.
Electronic Mail systems are primarily for official business. Most companies have a policy that non-business messages may be sent to specific individuals, but with limited business time spent on messages that do not have a business purpose. Employees should keep in mind that e-mail is not private or confidential. Any message sent can be forwarded and any email including those deleted can be retrieved. When using the e-mail system at work, it should be kept in mind that company property is being used; as a result, comments must be appropriate to a business setting. Special care should be taken to avoid jokes or comments that would be inconsistent with company policies prohibiting discrimination and harassment.
When access to the Internet is provided for company business, non-business use of the Internet may or may not be authorized (as per employer's decision). An employee should limit the time spent on non-business related web pages. Internet traffic can be and usually is monitored. Employees should avoid web sites that may contain information that would not be appropriate for a business setting and viewing pornographic and other offensive material are normally not tolerated and are usually grounds for immediate dismissal.
Employers need to develop a specific Business Code of Conduct for their firm if one does not exist. According to a survey (Hartman, 2001), about 60% of respondents reported that their companies had a code of conduct. Having a code of ethics and providing clarity of what it means should be a priority for all companies. All employees should have official reviews of the policies and Codes. If employee monitoring is being conducted and if a code of conduct exists, employers should notify employees at the outset (as well when it is being updated) and educate them on the code of conduct. In the United Kingdom, companies are required to tell their employees that they monitor them (McGrigor, 2002). Clear guidelines on the use of telephone calls, e-mail, and voice-mail should be in place. Many employers have specific rules in place asking everyone not to forward or accept junk mail that comes to them. There are literally hundreds of junk e-mails going around the Internet each day that could be a huge waste of time for employees to read. According to Hartman, "Employees need to be made aware that their company-provided e-mail access is company property and not a personal perk. They should know that electronic communications can be monitored and electronic documents retrieved, and that abuse of these resources may bring penalties." Hartman adds, "…Abuse of this ability (to monitor) will create an atmosphere of mistrust and hostility" (p. 403).
The idea of having ethics officers or ombudsman should be researched for feasibility. In the Ethics Resource Center survey, 33% of the respondents reported that their companies had an ethics office or ethics ombudsman. Employees should also take responsibility and accountability for their actions. As the Internet becomes more widely known and used, people need to understand that unless you know the "rules of the road", your on-line activity may lead to significant privacy problems (Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, 2002). Many websites and literature are available on privacy issues and our government laws. Another recommendation would be for employees to be careful of their e-mail activities: "Before you post a message to a public forum, ask yourself if you want an employer or family member to be able to read your posting in years to come" (Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, 2002). In other words, it is recommended that employees conduct themselves professionally and ethically to avoid any embarrassment or potential discipline. In a perfect world, if employees behaved ethically and employers fully trusted employees, there would be no need for employee monitoring. As with most ethical issues, the governing concern should be mutual respect and mutual accountability.
To ensure high ethical employee behavior, every level of management and non-management employees must fully understand the ethical implications of their decisions as it relates to their personal and professional values. Corporations need to implement a Business Code of Ethics and review with all employees. Also, an excellent tool for learning is case studies and role-playing. The key in this learning is to make the Code accessible and position it as a helpful tool for all employees. It is also recommended that all business managers display the Code on their desks in a healthy manner. Real world learning and the negative end results of unethical behavior or actions should be showcased to support this venture.
Ethical behaviors are vital to a corporation's overall success. The stakeholders are able to take direction from a well-written and detailed Business Code of Conduct. In an ethical dilemma for decision-making, a code is the employee's most essential tool. If a corporation chooses to engage in employee monitoring, this practice needs to be posted or announced to all employees. Employees need to understand the laws and the corporation's policies and Business Code of Conduct. At the same time, as suggested by many authors, organizations need to exercise restraint in looking over their employee's electronic shoulders (Hartman, 2001, p. 403). If everyone understands the ground rules and the playing field then our work environment will be fairer. In closing, if an employee is being ethical and following the corporation's policies, s/he should not be concerned with monitoring. To balance this statement, employers need to be respectful, open and honest in advising employees of its monitoring, and businesses should conduct their monitoring within the guidelines of the law.
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Bahaudin Mujtaba (D.B.A. with International and Human Resource Management specialties) is Assistant Professor of human resources and international management. He is also serving as the Director of Institutional Relations, Planning, and Accreditation for Nova Southeastern University at the H. Wayne Huizenga College of Business and Entrepreneurship in Fort Lauder, Florida. Bahaudin has worked as an internal consultant, trainer, and teacher at Training Development Departments of Human Resources as well as retail management in the corporate arena for 16 years. In his capacity as a consultant and trainer, Bahaudin has worked with various firms in the areas of management, cross-cultural communication, customer value/service, and diversity management. Academically, Bahaudin has been teaching graduate business courses both nationally and internationally since 1996. Bahaudin's undergraduate degree is from University of Central Florida. His MBA and DBA degrees are from Nova Southeastern University.
During the 1990s, Mujtaba had the pleasure of teaching courses in the USA, Brazil, Bahamas, and Jamaica. He was born in Logar and raised in Kabul of Afghanistan. Bahaudin and his family moved to the United States of America when he was a teenager. This has provided him many insights in culture, leadership, and management from the perspectives of different firms, cultures, and countries.