Somebody’s watching you: Has employee surveillance gone too far?

  • Since the beginning of the pandemic surveillance software has tripled to keep an eye on remote workers
  • Nearly 50% of employees would rather take a pay cut than deal with being watched by their employer
  • Many workers think their employers have crossed an ethical line when it comes to surveillance in remote workspaces.

Companies have always monitored their employees in some fashion or another, but since the beginning of the pandemic, sales of surveillance software have tripled. With many Americans working from home now, important questions about privacy have emerged: Can employees be watched in their own homes over email or Zoom? Is the record of their keystrokes fair game? What about their webcam?

The short answer is that companies have a lot of leeway to spy on their own workers even when they’re not in the office; you’re probably operating with a lot less privacy than you think. In fact, you might be shocked to learn what’s legal.

Below, we outline the major ways companies can keep tabs on your day and discuss the legal implications — including how to take action if you feel you’ve been wronged.

How your boss is watching you at home

Management believes it needs to keep a close eye on employees, with no fewer than 78% of executives using monitoring software to collect data on employee performance and activity, according to a recent ExpressVPN survey. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that employee trust is at an all-time low, as well. What’s more, 70% of employees don’t trust their management.

Being watched by the boss is nothing new. The signs that say “cameras on premises” are ubiquitous across North America — so much so that it’s easy for employees to forget they are being monitored. When in the office, everyone knows that their manager could pop by at any second to see how things are going and to (not so subtly) make sure you’re working.

But in this work-from-home era, when many companies are thinking about permanent remote-work policies, employers aren’t comfortable with the lack of control. In a recent study of 2,000 companies and 2,000 employees, a whopping 57% of bosses said they don’t trust their people to work without in-person supervision. So they started watching workers (at home) in a variety of mundane to creepy ways.

Monitoring keystrokes to track productivity

One of the easiest (and longest-standing) methods of tracking employees is by recording keystrokes and mouse clicks. Maybe it’s not the most accurate of methods to determine if someone is working, but in the tech world, data rules. It’s no surprise that huge computing companies and IT departments were the first to jump on this method of tracking.

“Ten years ago at one of the biggest tech companies in the world, a colleague of mine was able to work remotely anywhere in the world,” said HR consultant and workplace strategist Ami Au-Yeung. “Being a very data-driven company, they were able to track keystrokes. He worked in the IT department, so he was aware that management would be tracking the number of tickets he responded to, how he was handling customer requests, and all the other quality metrics associated with his role.”

Recording you through your laptop

Nearly three in four bosses use what’s recorded from your laptop in data-based performance reviews, according to a recent study. Staff calls, emails, Slack messages, Microsoft Teams, Google Workspace, and Zoom meetings can all be recorded and mined for details and trends. If there’s a way for someone to record you at work, chances are it’s being done.

Some companies have even invested in a video conferencing tool called Sneek to take photos of their employees every one to five minutes. The software wasn’t actually intended to be used to spy on employees, but that’s what it’s being used for now —– to make sure you’re actually working.

Spying on employees with a fake Instagram account

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., took the term “creeping you on social media” to a whole new level when he let slip on a company webinar that he was spying on employees through a fake Instagram account. Dimon said he was looking at employees’ accounts to see if they were really sick or just hungover from partying too much.

Though newsworthy, it’s not illegal. Many of us would be appalled to know our bosses were watching our every waking moment via Instagram, and in that recent study of 2,000 companies, 83% of employers agreed that there were ethical concerns with their own behavior. However, most of them (78% to be exact) still put monitoring software in place.

Work-from-homers should get used to watching their backs out of the office, experts said.

“As a general rule, employees have little expectation of privacy while on company grounds or using company equipment, including company computers and vehicles,” said Matt C. Pinsker, adjunct professor of homeland security and criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University.

To cover all bases, employment lawyers recommend that companies disseminate statements to that effect to all employees. Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, employers may monitor emails sent on work devices, so long as the company handbook states that email monitoring is happening.

Big problems emerge when employees and employers don’t see eye to eye on what workers can reasonably expect and what companies are allowed to do. Even if your boss discloses to you that email monitoring is happening, they may not be giving you all the details. For example, they might tell you it’s happening in a blanket statement, but you might have no idea it’s being used to assess your performance.

“What we find is that a lot of organizations don’t actually tell employees that they’re being monitored, and if they’re being monitored, they don’t tell them when, how, or in what context they’re being monitored,” David Tomczak, a researcher industrial psychology at The George Washington University, said in an interview with the American Psychological Association podcast “Speaking of Psychology.”

Tomczak said an implicit contract between employees and employers breaks down when the amount of electronic performance monitoring increases. “We looked at our research from the psychological contract literature, which basically states that individuals have this unstated expectation of their employer … to treat them with respect and they expect that their employer trusts them enough to do the job … As that amount of EPM increases, we wanted to basically say, ‘Okay, it’s going to be a violation of the psychological contract.’ “

Company surveillance could jeopardize corporate culture

It’s safe to say that most employees are being watched by their boss, even in the comfort (and supposed privacy) of their own homes. Once employees are aware of the constant surveillance, 56% feel stress and anxiety because of it. On top of that, 32% of employees take fewer breaks, because they worry about what the surveillance will imply about their productivity.

Almost half of those surveyed said they’d take a pay cut to make it stop.

“When I see the topic of employee monitoring, I think of micromanagement,” Ami Au-Yeung, HR Consultant and Workplace Strategist, said. “It’s the opposite of setting true expectations and trusting your staff. I’d ask leaders considering company surveillance if that is really the type of culture that you want to build moving forward.”

How to take action if you are unhappy with the surveillance at your company

If you’re management, it’s worth reflecting on the culture these surveillance programs create. And while what’s happening might be legal, it doesn’t mean it’s ethical.

For employees, scour the company handbook to see what’s disclosed by way of company surveillance. And for heaven’s sake, stop using your company laptop and email account for any communications not strictly work-related. While you’re at it, consider making that Instagram account private, too.