Abusive workplace surveillance

Other Names:
Invasion of privacy of workers

Employees in nearly every country are vulnerable to comprehensive surveillance by managers. Legal protections are generally more lax in such circumstances because surveillance is frequently imposed as a condition of employment. In many countries employers can tap phones, read email and monitor computer screens. They can bug conversations, analyse computer and keyboard work, peer through closed circuit television cameras, use tracking technology to monitor personal movements, analyze urine to detect drug use, and demand the disclosure of intimate personal data.

The technology being used to monitor workers is extremely powerful. It can analyse "keystrokes" on a terminal to determine whether employees are making efficient use of their time between telephone conversations. Software companies call this process "performance monitoring." Even in workplaces staffed by highly skilled information technology specialists, bosses demand the right to spy on every detail of a workers performance. Modern networked systems can interrogate computers to determine which software in being run, how often, and in what manner. A comprehensive audit trail gives managers a profile of each user, and a panorama of how the workers are interacting with their machines.

The technology being used extends to every aspect of a worker's life. Miniature cameras monitor behaviour. "Smart" ID badges track an employee's movement around a building. Telephone Management Systems (TMS) analyse the pattern of telephone use and the destination of calls. Psychological tests, general intelligence tests, aptitude tests, performance tests, vocational interest tests, personality tests and honesty tests are all electronically assessed.


A report by the American Management Association revealed that two thirds of American bosses spy on their workers, often through email and phone interception. In Britain and the United States, there are few legal constraints on video surveillance, unlike the laws of Austria, Germany, Norway and Sweden, under which employers are obliged to seek agreement with workers on such matters. In the wake of a 1997 decision in the European Court of Human Rights, bosses are obliged to notify workers that they should have no expectation of privacy on the phone. And accordingly, most businesses are moving to routine monitoring of phone calls.

In a report entitled Job Stress: The 20th Century Disease, the ILO "points to growing evidence of problems around the world, including developing countries, where.. companies are doing little to help employees cope with the strain of modern industrialization." The report also says that as the use of computers spreads throughout the world, workers in many countries are being subjected to new pressures, including electronic eavesdropping by superiors. A 1990 survey of telecommunications workers sponsored in part by the Communications Workers of America revealed that 84 percent of monitored employees complained about high tension as opposed to 67 percent of unmonitored workers. A later study by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment also found that workplace monitoring contributes to stress and stress-related illness.

In 1999, 40 employees of Xerox were fired for surfing to "forbidden" web sites at work in the USA. They were caught because Xerox, and numerous other large corporations, are using specialized software such as Spector or Websense to monitor employees computer use. Approximately 45% of employers use a variety of monitoring techniques whether of phone calls, email or computer use. Their argument is that this is necessary to clamp down on time wasted by employees and also to stop employees from creating a potentially hostile environment for their fellow workers.

Occupational stress
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic GrowthGOAL 11: Sustainable Cities and CommunitiesGOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions
Problem Type:
E: Emanations of other problems
Date of last update
04.10.2020 – 22:48 CEST