Should HR 'snoop' on employee conversations?

Only 10% of survey respondents view workplace monitoring as an invasion of employees’ right to privacy

Should HR 'snoop' on employee conversations?

A vast majority of employers (90%) believe it’s acceptable to keep an eye on their workers’ communications to prevent loss of internal data and to keep staff productive, a new study says. 
In a survey conducted by Barcelona-based software firm GetApp, researchers asked 173 people in management positions or above about their thoughts on monitoring workplace conversations. 

They found only 10% of respondents felt that keeping tabs on their employees’ communications is an invasion of privacy.

The number is significantly lower compared to the 43% of employers who claimed in a 2015 survey that engaging in such practice was invasive. 

Why are managers today keen on monitoring internal comms? Two in five (38%) said they need to listen in on employees to protect company secrets, while nearly one in three (30%) said they do it to keep workers productive. 

READ MORE: Should you snoop on your employees' emails?

Of the employers surveyed, 72% said they do most of their monitoring using internal communications tools. This is a 16% jump from figures taken four years ago.

The researchers also saw an increase in how often bosses snooped on their employees, with more than half of respondents claiming they peeked at their workers’ communications on a daily or weekly basis. This is almost double the 22.5% who did so in 2015.

The study identified three main factors that contributed to the increase in employee monitoring. 

  • Technological advancements 
    Managers now have access to communication apps that offer a less invasive method of monitoring workers’ conversations.
  • Shifting work culture 
    The popularity of remote work and the gig economy has also made it more difficult for employers to monitor staff. Without being able to physically keep tabs on their workers’ progress, companies rely on tools with built-in surveillance features.
  • Regulation and data privacy 
    More government organizations are starting to adopt stringent regulations on data protection. GDPR and other similar policies have forced companies to pay close attention to how their workers handle sensitive data.

The following are the five most popular communication apps used by small businesses, according to the survey:

  • Google Hangouts (29.5%)
  • Skype / Skype for Business (21.4%)
  • Slack (15.6%)
  • Microsoft Teams (12.7%)
  • WhatsApp (12.1%)

Monitoring workers’ communications has been a sensitive topic among HR leaders. While some view it as a way for employers to protect their businesses, others believe it could violate employees’ right to privacy.

Carl Blake, a senior associate with New Zealand-based law firm Simpson Grierson, said there are certain limitations to monitoring employee conversations, particularly through email.

“Although an employer may own the computer, facilities and networks that employees use to send emails – both business-related and private – there is no carte blanche right for an employer to covertly monitor and access all such emails,” he said.

Business owners who have access to their workers’ emails in the workplace need to follow privacy laws since they could also see personal information in the correspondence, Blake explained.

However, the legislation can be overridden through certain contractual provisions.

“If an employee has consented to the monitoring of their emails, and a suitable contractual provision exists in the employee’s employment agreement or employer policies that allows such monitoring, then such monitoring may occur without a breach of the Privacy Act,” Blake said.

“Otherwise, any monitoring of an employee's emails in the workplace must be undertaken in accordance with the Act.”

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