The internet is a very useful business tool. However, it’s not without its disadvantages. It can create some thorny issues for both business owners and workers to navigate.
Employees often have access to sensitive information about the company that’s stored on computer systems, and internet missteps could make that information vulnerable to malicious actors or employee-caused ransom attacks. Employers may also worry that employees could be misusing the company’s internet, such as by spending time on personal tasks and socializing rather than doing the work that they’re being paid for.
Meanwhile, employees have reason to worry that some of the sensitive information on employee networks includes their own personal details—information that could be misused or leaked onto the web. And they may also worry that their employers will go too far in their efforts to monitor their employees, crossing the line between justifiable monitoring and inappropriate intrusion into the employee’s personal life.
What are an employee’s rights when it comes to the internet?
First of all, it’s important to realize that, broadly speaking, employers have a right to monitor the internet activities performed by their employees during work time on company devices, and on the company network.
So, office employees doing their work on company computers while they’re on the clock should have a reasonable expectation regarding privacy when they’re using the company’s internet. You can monitor their internet activity for any number of reasons: to gauge the quality of their work, to make sure that they’re staying on task, or to find out if they’re accessing anything that they shouldn’t be accessing—from inappropriate websites to files that they shouldn’t need to access.
However, just because it’s okay for you to monitor your employee’s internet activities, that doesn’t mean you don’t have any responsibilities to them regarding the data you collect—it doesn’t mean that you are not responsible for protecting that same data.
For example, if you find that your employee is logging into Facebook during work time, you may be able to discipline them for being off-task or neglecting their work, but you cannot expose their login information or personal information that your system has collected from their activities.
In fact, depending on where you’re located, you may be obligated to let your employee know that you’ve collected this data and to delete the data at their request. Even if you’re not obligated to do so, it’s a generally good practice. After all, you don’t want to be responsible for what could happen if an employee’s personal data is exposed.
Is employee monitoring legal? Things get more complicated when it comes to monitoring employees who aren’t on company property, aren’t using the company network or devices, or who aren’t on the clock. Laws vary from country to country, from state to state, and even from one locality to another within the same state, so it’s very important to make sure that you’re familiar with the employee monitoring laws that affect your local area. And if you use remote employees, you’ll also need to be familiar with the laws that affect the areas that they’re in, because they may differ from yours, and you may be bound by them.
For instance, there are some good reasons why you might want to monitor internet activities of remote employees. After all, they may have access to proprietary information but may be using networks that are not as secure as the ones you have in the office. But monitoring an employee’s activities while they’re using their own devices or when they’re not working could land you in hot water in some situations—and even if it doesn’t, to your employee, it could feel like an unnecessary invasion of their privacy, leading to job dissatisfaction.
Your best bet, in this case, is to issue company devices to remote employees—ones to be used only for work purposes. That way, you can monitor both internet activity and location (useful in the event that the device is ever lost or stolen) without encroaching on the employee’s personal life. They can use their own devices for personal internet activity and leave the company device at home if they don’t want their location tracked.
If issuing company devices isn’t possible, another option is to employ monitoring and location tracking on personal devices, but only when the employee is clocked in and actively working. In that case, any monitoring should be turned completely off when the employee is not on the clock, and the employer should use extreme care with any personal data inadvertently collected from the employee’s device.
While employers have a duty to protect any internet data collected from their employees, they should also encourage employees to actively protect themselves, as well as the company, from any potential breaches or exposure of sensitive data. You can do this with a strong internet usage policy.
An internet usage policy is a document that spells out your rules and expectations for employees using company devices, company networks, or accessing the internet for the company. An internet usage policy might state that employees are only to use the internet on company devices for work-related tasks, for example, and that personal tasks are to be restricted to personal devices on outside networks.
Furthermore, an internet usage policy might outline how company email is to be used and specify that it is not to be used to harass or to spread offensive messages or material. Also, your internet usage policy might make it clear that no software is to be downloaded and installed on company devices unless approved by the company.
It’s important that every employee receives a copy of the internet usage policy and affirms that they’ve read and understood the policy. Employees should be notified right away if any changes are made to the policy. It’s also important to explain to your employees that following the internet usage policy is about more than just protecting the company—it’s also about protecting the employee’s data and privacy. Ideally, an employee who is following the internet usage policy won’t put their data into the employer’s hands, and therefore, it won’t be at risk.
A strong internet usage policy can save a lot of trouble both for employees and employers.
When used responsibly, internet monitoring can be a valuable tool that enhances safety for both employee and employer, as well as a way to boost productivity and monitor progress. To find out more about employee internet monitoring, schedule a call with an InterGuard consultant.