Is Your Boss Spying on You?

First of all, why would your beloved company spy on you? You've worked your fingers to the bone for these guys and what do you get? A snoop looking over your shoulder?The answers range from the mundane to the truly bizarre:* To find out if you're "wasting time" on the job.* To see if you're stealing.* To see if you're trying to start or join a union.* To see if you're doing personal projects instead of working.* To determine if you're doing drugs.* To find out if alcoholism or marital problems are interfering with work.* To see if you're sexually harassing your co-workers.* To see if you're following company rules.* To see if your smoke break is taking too long.* To find out if you smoke in the first place and are a health risk.* To safeguard your trip to the parking lot at night.* To see if you're being rude to customers.* To find out if you're sending racist or sexist e-mail that the company is liable for.* To see if you're working fast enough.* Even to see if you can recite the company's insipid mission statement.There are a lot of reasons, both good and bad, as to why your boss might be spying on you, and more companies spy than you might think.And the spying is getting worse, with virtually no legal protections for employees."Employees are generally at the mercy of employers," states Robert Smith, publisher of the Privacy Journal. "There is no protection in the workplace."The WatchersIn a survey of more than 900 U.S. companies last year, it was revealed that 63 percent of the firms engaged in monitoring or surveilling their employees -- and 23 percent of the companies didn't tell their employees that they are being watched.Currently, "35 percent of major U.S. companies keep tabs of their employees by recording their phone calls or voicemail, checking their computer files and electronic mail, or videotaping their work," according to the survey by the American Management Association (AMA), which was released this spring.The survey also found that 37 percent of the 900 AMA-member companies monitor the phone numbers their employees call and note the duration of their conversations, although few admit to actually listening in on calls.The AMA believes that similar levels of employee spying are conducted by all 10,000 of its corporate members, a group which represents one-quarter of all employees in the United States."Many employers believe that what's done on company time and on company premises is the company's business," says Eric Rolfe Greenberg, the AMA's director of management studies. "While much of this surveillance is directed at specific job categories to monitor performance, any employee at any time may be under watch."Picky, PickyA great deal of spying is out in the open.A medical transcriptionist, data processor or word processor, for instance, may know that her keystroke output is being monitored to fulfill a quota.And if you are asked to pee into a jar by members of the personnel department, you can assume that they're not checking for the poppy seed bagel you ate for breakfast.Other examples of mundane spying might include timing your breaks or keeping tabs of office gossip -- little things that can create an ugly blemish on your company record or an awkward pause in your annual evaluation.Telemarketers or employees who sell things like concert tickets over the phone are also routinely monitored by their supervisors to find out if they're being naughty or nice."Employers want to be sure their employees are doing a good job, but employees don't want their every sneeze or trip to the water cooler logged," notes the national Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "That's the essential conflict of workplace monitoring."Sometimes, this "conflict" results in serious health problems. The computer monitoring of employees involved in intensive wordprocessing or data entry can result in stress disorders, back problems and carpal tunnel syndrome.Big Daddy is Watching YouMore serious spying involves the taping of phone conversations, a practice followed by 10.4 percent of the companies surveyed by the AMA. Another 5.2 percent of companies tape and review their employees' voice mail; with 13.7 percent reviewing computer files; 15 percent reviewing e-mail; 15.7 percent videotaping their employees' performance; and 37 percent monitoring phone numbers and the duration of calls.Some corporate hotels, restaurants and retail stores employ firms to pose as rude "customers." A report is then made by the spy firm on how the employees reacted to insults or abuse. Employees at the Grand Traverse Resort were reportedly the target of this practice in the late 1980s.The increased use of video cameras makes spying on the job practically Orwellian.Many night shift employees are happy to have a video camera surveilling their company's parking lot, but how many would like to have a camera monitoring their work practices?"Thirty-four percent of firms videotape work spaces to counter theft, violence, or sabotage, but not specifically to monitor employee performance," Greenberg notes. He adds that, "Only 10 percent of respondent companies make all employees subject to continuous videotaping, often for security purposes, and fewer than one percent tape all phone calls by all workers. A greater share of companies monitor selected workers, using routine or occasional spot checks rather than ongoing surveillance."Bigger Is Not BetterLarge companies are far more likely than small ones to spy on employees, according to the survey. Some 70 percent of firms employing 2,500 or more workers resort to spying, compared to 54 percent of firms employing fewer than 500.Additionally, "Monitoring and surveillance is highest in the financial sector, where 81 percent of firms engage in electronic listening and watching. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of wholesalers and retailers report such practices. It is lowest among manufacturers (59 percent)."Providers of financial servies are three times more likely to listen in on employee phone calls, and twice as likely to review employee e-mail."This sort of monitoring can work to the customer's benefit," Greenberg notes. "Supervisors are checking to see that polices are being followed and laws and regulations obeyed."But there's no official line between business and private communications. What you say on your office phone or key into your desktop computer may be subject to review."No ProtectionsThe protection of employee privacy is virtually zilch in America.According to the American Civil Liberties Union, only the State of Connecticut has passed legislation protecting privacy in the workplace by forbidding electronic monitoring. "Elsewhere,no laws offer safeguards to employees."That means that:* Your employer has the right to listen in on your phone calls at work for reasons of quality control (although the boss must hang up immediately if it's a personal call).* If you wear a headset at work, your conversations with co-workers can be subject to monitoring.* If your computer is linked to others in a network, your employer can use software to snoop on your efforts. Your computer may also be accessed when you are not around.* Computer monitoring also allows your boss to keep track of the amount of time you are away from your terminal.* Your e-mail is the company's property and your boss can review it. Deleting messages may be useless, since they are often permanently "backed up" on magnetic tape, or can be retrieved from your hard drive by an expert."Employees are given some protection from computer and other forms of electronic monitoring under certain circumstances," reports the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "Union contracts, for example, may limit the employer's right to monitor."Mum's the WordIf you are concerned about spying in the workplace, there are a few common sense tactics.* Remember that "loose lips sink ships." Office politics and snooping are often sparked by idle gossip. If you don't want Tattle-Tale Sue in the next cubicle telling weird stories to your meddlesome boss, keep your mouth shut around the coffee pot.* Always make important personal phone calls on a pay phone or a separate phone designated by your employer for personal calls.* Be aware that personal phone numbers and the length of calls may turn up on company reports.* Unless you have installed encryption software on your business e-mail, assume that it could be monitored.* Remember that those cubicle walls are mighty thin.Although you may never end up a corporate Jane or James Bond, with a little pluck and circumspection, you could keep your boss guessing indefinitely.Spy Vs. SpyHas paranoia pushed you over the edge? A growing number of privacy freaks use "incorrect" but innocuous information to obscure their activities, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).When pressed for personal information on business reply cards or "when you know that you are not required to divulge the information, but someone insists that you must," the EPIC offers the following suggestions:* Give your address as that of your town's city hall or police station.* Use a valid, but bogus phone number, such as 1-202-224-3121, the Congressional switchboard.* Use the Social Security number 078-05-1120, which was printed on "sample" cards in the 1940s and '50s. Most clerks won't know it's a fake, and it won't interfere with other social security numbers. Plus, the IRS and SSA will know you're just kidding.Obviously, these ideas won't work on your employer, but they may give you a little more peace of mind when you're off the job.

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