6 things HR won’t tell you about monitoring your communication

Employees can best keep their personal communication private by keeping it off company networks and keeping work communication off their personal devices.

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Most employers use software to monitor the work done on their systems for productivity and security, but this monitoring also extends to employee communication through those systems. Technological and legal changes are allowing employers more access to employees’ private lives.


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To help you understand how the boundaries are shifting around your privacy as an employee, here are 6 evolving trends to watch.

1. New technology is allowing employers to track keystrokes and screen time

Productivity tracking software typically gives employers dashboards to monitor what websites and programs employees use, how frequently, for how long and in connection to what other activities. Employers can also use these softwares to block individual sites or trigger alarms when employees visit sites.

Employers have long had the ability to track keystrokes. If your employer is monitoring your words, one company has developed software that can derive your psychological characteristics (such as emotions and thinking style). Monitoring software can also take screenshots of employees’ computers at random times or even record video of employees’ screens.

2. File tracking can occur through multiple avenues

Employers worried that employees might store inappropriate files on their servers or steal valuable secrets can install software to monitor file and folder creation, deletion, access, copying and printing. At one of my employers, I discovered and reported to IT that any employee could see on any workplace printer the title of every document printed and by which employee. With a bug like that, employees should think twice about printing something personal or confidential at work.

3. Email tracking isn’t just in movies

Managers or their software are frequently reading the emails you send to colleagues. I was reminded of this in a creepy scene in HBO’s Theranos documentary when an employee sent an email and received a response from a manager who was neither a To: or CC: recipient.

Network analysis software also tracks email, messaging and meeting patterns to put employees in categories such as “influencer” and “change-maker.” Although these type of reports may influence the way managers perceive, rate and pay their employees, such data is often not accessible by the employee.

4. Content tracking can happen

Many employers have security software that is constantly searching their network for inappropriate words, programs, and media. I was once involved in firing an employee whose NSFW amateur writing was found on his work computer by such software. Rule of thumb: Once you put something on your employer’s network, it is no longer private. This also applies to content sent or received with a private device through company wifi. Employer wifi is a tempting perk, but keeping your job is worth paying for your own private data plan.

5. Personal phones can be monitored, too

Most employer policies make anything put on an employer’s computer or network the employer’s property. Employees should remember never to plug their personal phones into work computers, as they could be fired once the phone backs itself up to the computer. Rule of thumb: If you do it over an employer system, they can monitor it.

Evidently, this applies even if the employer promises they will not monitor personal content or there is no longer an employment relationship. So, employees who value their privacy should not use employer networks or devices for any personal communication and should not discuss business over their personal accounts and devices.

6. Personal accounts can be inspected (sometimes) if you discuss work

In or out of the office, if employees want their personal email, messaging or social media accounts to remain private, they should not conduct work-related discussions on them. When the founder of Papa John’s Pizza challenged his firing, a court gave him access to company executives’ personal email and text accounts that included discussions of his firing.

This last example may seem like an overreach, but, if I sued because I felt I had been improperly fired, and my bosses had discussed firing me over Facebook or WhatsApp, I too would want access to those discussions. I doubt, therefore, that courts will stop employers from steadily getting more access to grey areas between private and professional. Employees can best keep their personal communication private by keeping it off company networks and keeping work communication off their personal accounts and devices.

Josh’s professional passion is finding HR solutions that are mutually beneficial for employees and their employer. Starting as an HR Analyst and working his way up to being an HR Director, this SPHR has influenced the careers of thousands of employees and built expertise in a spectrum of HR systems and projects. Josh is driven to build sustainable, high-integrity employment relationships that enhance company performance by enabling the skills and career opportunities of its employees.

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A version of this post previously appeared on Fairygodboss, the largest career community that helps women get the inside scoop on pay, corporate culture, benefits, and work flexibility. Founded in 2015, Fairygodboss offers company ratings, job listings, discussion boards, and career advice.


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