Think you’re under company surveillance? Here’s what you can do

  • Companies can keep tabs on employees both in-office and remotely (read more about it here), but there are steps you can take to protect yourself.
  • Many U.S. companies have their own policies and protections to protect employees.
  • Ladders News spoke with Wendy Swinden, owner and senior partner of urHRteam Associates, to answer questions.

Whether you know it or not, your manager may be spying on you through your work computer. From keystroke trackers to monitoring your location or even using the built-in webcam to surreptitiously take attendance, the ways your boss can surveil you is endless — and more and more companies are willing to deploy these methods as more people work from home.

Here’s how to approach management if you suspect you’re being monitored, and what risks you need to consider before you do.

How do you find out if you’re under surveillance at work?

Before you go marching into your manager’s office and demanding to know whether you’re under company surveillance, you can look into the original package of documents you received when you were hired. The company handbook, or any formal employment agreement, or policies on your company’s server should disclose any monitoring taking place.

Wendy Swinden, owner and senior partner of urHRteam Associates, an Ontario-based human-relations consulting firm, said companies do need to comply with legislation that protect privacy and personal information. In the U.S., there are no all-encompassing laws, while in Canada, companies must comply with legislation that protects personal information.

Many U.S. companies have their own policies and protections to protect employees, though it’s kind of like self-certifying. Employment lawyers recommend that companies make their employees sign off on policies that state where monitoring and tracking are taking place. Under current federal law, emails can be monitored so long as employees are aware and there’s a formal document, like a company handbook, that discloses the monitoring.

Can you just ask your manager if you’re being watched?

If you’re having trouble tracking down the documents that might contain an answer, you can simply ask your management team, but you want to do this with some planning. Not all teams will respond well to being questioned on this front. 

“Employees should ‘read’ the culture to determine if asking questions about any surveillance could lead to termination without cause,” Swinden said. “Some business leaders are very heavy-handed about this – not realizing the potential impact on productivity and engagement.”

Is there an app to block surveillance?

There are programs to block potential surveillance software on company laptops, but organizations are wise to them and are on the lookout for employees trying to circumvent surveillance.

“The plethora of tracking software systems will likely identify these apps and delete them from the system,” Swinden said. “Many businesses monitor for the addition of apps and software on business computers and may ask that they be deleted.”

If you find out you are being monitored, what can you do?

Swinden said that while many companies will disclose you’re being monitored, they don’t have to tell you what they’ll use the data for. It might be for performance reviews. It could be to ensure you’re putting in the work hours. But whatever the reason, surveillance has been around in various forms for a while, and we all know that that kind of data is used for appraisals. If your company has a robust performance appraisal process, you could ask your manager how you’re being monitored to get ahead of the game.

Going off-grid for snarky conversations

If you suspect that your company is tracking your email, Slack channels, or Zoom calls, then you need to be careful about what you say and type. Obviously, the regular work channels are not the place to complain about your boss’s latest bad idea or to gossip about a fellow employee.

Set up a WhatsApp channel or messaging group on your personal phone to communicate with your colleagues about things you wouldn’t want your bosses to overhear. Now, you don’t have to worry about your every move and word being watched. Many people text their colleagues a running commentary while on a Zoom call with their team. But you have to be careful who you include.

“There are risks to this — particularly if you have one employee going rogue and exposing the app and the information included in the app,” Swinden said.

What are your legal rights?

Right now, there are very few ground-breaking cases about virtual work monitoring, especially since this kind of surveillance technology was unleashed relatively recently on such a massive scale.

Legal experts warn that employees really have no expectation of privacy when they are using company property to go about their workday (laptops, phones, desktops, etc.). Even in Canada, where there is legislation, employers have a lot of leeway to do as they please, and, as Swinden points out, it remains a gray area for most.

“Employers can collect data with respect to the full employee life cycle and would likely be able to argue that surveillance is important to ensure that their employees are meeting the needs of the customer, which is the reason the business exists in the first place,” she said.

Can you ask for less surveillance at work?

Yes, but you need to go about asking for less surveillance intelligently. Some work cultures are simply not going to let you have autonomy. If leadership is set on a more rigid bums-in-seats approach or if there’s just very little trust in employees, you might not be able to budge the current mandate. And if you try, Swinden cautions, you need to beware of the following:

“When raising the issue, employees need to ‘read’ the culture. Some businesses implement these systems as they have little trust in their employees and need to have data to back up their beliefs,” Swinden said. “Engagement of employees in these environments tends to be low, turnover high, and the business tends to dispose of employees who don’t toe the line.”

Can you be fired for asking not to be monitored at work?

You can be fired for any cause. So before you ask to not be monitored, you may want to be prepared for the ultimate backlash. It’s always a good idea to have a Plan B if you are thinking of asking for something different than what’s been expected. Wendy explains the legal grounds that companies have to let you go if you do ask:

“In terms of termination for asking about a toning down of surveillance, a business can terminate anyone —– it is just a matter of the amount that they are willing to pay,” Swinden said. “In the U.S., many states are ‘at-will’ states, so there is no requirement to provide pay in lieu of notice or severance. Within Canada, the provinces regulate ’employment standards,’ and so the business would likely provide the minimum standard for employees who challenge the surveillance.”

Keep your options open if you choose to challenge management

If you have the heebie-jeebies just thinking about what your company has collected from you over the past year and a half when you worked from home, you might want to drum up the courage to ask for less surveillance. But you need to be prepared for possible dismissal. 

“In the employment market of the 2020s, employees should always have a plan B, keep an eye on the job market and ensure that, should something happen with their job, or they choose to work elsewhere, that they have been scanning the market to know what is out there,” Swinden said.

The good news is that as the pandemic declines, economists are expecting that businesses will roar back to life, and the job market will be red hot. Employees will be in a position to look for something that suits them better, and it’s always a good idea to scan job boards from time to time and to keep your options open.