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Is There Less Workplace Privacy These Days?

Workplace monitoring is on the rise, no doubt about it. According to an American Management Association survey, more than three-quarters of major companies now record and review employee communications and on-the-job activities. (See USA Today article.). And that’s just after you get a job–background investigations are also on the rise, as companies dealing with post-September 11 jitters have become increasingly wary about hiring the wrong people. (See Washington Post article). According to the results of a survey published by the Society of Human Resource Management, 52% of businesses have implemented increased security provisions since 9/11, and anecdotal comments suggest many companies have implemented this increased security through the use of more thorough background screenings. Another explanation for increased security measures is the faltering economy and the need for maximum workplace productivity.

Firms specializing in background screening and workplace security claim they’re receiving more business than they can handle. Database companies can quickly verify identities and check criminal records, driving histories and former addresses, as well as applicants’ credit records, education credentials and previous employment. Fees start at just a few dollars for the most basic reports, making it cost-effective from a business perspective. Some on-the-job monitoring that is becoming increasingly prevalent: hiring third parties to keep an eye on employee activity, with actors–introduced as the newest hires–as undercover agents monitoring employee behavior; camera and audio monitoring, made much less costly by new technology; and electronic surveillance which allows managers to record keystrokes, e-mail, online chats, instant messages and more.

But is all this surveillance really necessary? Doesn’t it raise privacy concerns? Yes, says Barry Steinhardt of the ACLU, who responds “They [the various forms of surveillance] all raise concerns from the privacy point of view. Our every action and utterance is being watched.” But given the dearth of laws protecting workplace privacy, in most instances, these types of surveillance are legal. (See National Workrights Institute issue page). That’s not likely to change, given employers’ heightened fears about security and productivity. So watch out, because the guy in the next cubicle might just be watching you.

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