Big Brother is watching you… at work

What do you consider intrusive surveillance at work? Cameras in the carpark? Timesheets? Monitoring of personal internet time? Your phone calls recorded? Like it or not, monitoring at work is on the increase.

Some believe it makes us more productive, others see it as an unwarranted invasion of privacy that breeds suspicion in the workplace. Although we all like a good conspiracy theory, not all surveillance is straight out of the pages of a George Orwell novel. For example, appropriate workplace monitoring includes CCTV to discourage violence by members of the public against frontline staff; spot-checks to ensure workers in hazardous jobs are not at risk from unsafe working practices; or keeping tabs on emails as potential evidence of racist, sexist and bullying behaviour. Nevertheless, the desire to watch over staff can often be excessive, spilling into our private lives, demotivating us and leading to a breakdown in the trust between employee and employer.

While the Data Protection Act doesn't prevent employers from monitoring workers, it does set limits on the collection, storage and use of personal information. This is backed up by comprehensive guidance for employers from the Information Commissioner's Office. Here are some key questions to help you decide if monitoring at your workplace has tipped from sensible surveillance into a breach of your privacy that needs to be challenged.

Is it really necessary?

Before putting surveillance of any kind in place, employers should conduct an impact assessment to weigh the benefits of monitoring against the negative effects it could have on staff and their right to a private life at work. They should consider less intrusive alternatives, and consult trade union or other staff representatives. Monitoring should never be excessive or become routine.

Is it hushed up?

Provided a fair impact assessment has been carried out, your employer does not ordinarily need your individual consent to monitor you, but they must tell you about new monitoring arrangements and the reasons for them. (The only exception to this is where covert monitoring is allowed to properly investigate suspected criminal activity.) Workers should also be periodically reminded of existing monitoring.

Is it written down somewhere?

A responsible employer should also include details of monitoring in the staff handbook which all new starters should have access to. Since monitoring of IT usage is now so common, many organisations now have a dedicated electronic communications policy to explain any online monitoring in place. If your employer doesn’t have a stated policy on email and web usage, ask your manager to clarify what personal use of email or the web they will permit you. (Also, see our previous blog about how to stay safe on social media.) 

What you can do if you are concerned about privacy at work

You might be rightly concerned about collection of your personal information at work. The Data Protection Act gives you important rights to ask your employer what personal information it is holding about you, how that information was obtained, how that information is or will be used, and who is likely to have access to your personal information. If your employer refuses to give you this information, you can complain directly to the Information Commissioner’s Office. However, if you are a union member, we would advise you speak to your rep first. They may be able to help you resolve matters without the need for a formal complaint.

This blog only scratches the surface on workplace surveillance and privacy – for loads of detailed information concerning your rights, visit workSMART’s dedicated Monitoring at Work section.