Many Ohio employers are reading their employees’ e-mails and closely monitoring their Internet use, social media activities and phone calls, citing an interest in ensuring workers are remaining productive and complying with workplace policies.
Using surveillance technology, companies and government employers have caught workers slacking off, viewing and downloading lewd materials and breaking the rules or the law.
Human resource experts said employers need to monitor their employees to make sure they are not behaving in ways that could hurt the organizations or make them vulnerable to litigation.
“Company’s computer systems are the property of the employer, and the employee has no reasonable expectation of privacy when using the computer system,” said Nancy Flynn, the founder and executive director of the ePolicy Institute, a training and consulting firm in Columbus.
But some privacy-rights groups said the unprecedented level of workplace snooping is troubling because there is significant potential for abuse.
Mangers and IT staff can read employees’ messages for entertainment or clues about their social lives, religious beliefs, disabilities, political leanings and sexuality, advocates said. Managers also may be able to learn employees’ passwords for their personal e-mail and other private accounts.
Electronic privacy concerns have been a hot topic recently after a government contractor exposed a massive U.S. domestic surveillance program that collects and monitors e-mails and phone calls.
Routine check leads to firing
During a routine check of its business information systems in 2008, the Washington-Centerville Public Library discovered that some files associated with an employee’s computer access were significantly larger than normal.
A closer examination by the library determined that 68 percent of the male staffer’s e-mails were personal in nature, and he conducted 1,300 Google searches in a four-week period, court documents show. The employee also downloaded comics and song lyrics while at work.
The library fired the employee and others for violating its business systems policies and “wasting” taxpayer dollars.
The details of the computer audit and firing were made public when the library appealed and successfully reversed the state’s decision to grant the employee unemployment compensation. The courts eventually determined the employee was fired for just cause.
These types of electronic audits are becoming more commonplace.
About 94 percent of employers monitor employee computer use, and some monitor e-mail, web access, telephone calls and social media, according to some estimates.
Cincinnati law firm Lerner, Sampson & Rothfuss fired a paralegal in 2008 after the human resources director became suspicious the worker was using her work e-mail for personal purposes, which was strictly forbidden. The director monitored the employee’s e-mail in real time and discovered she was using the firm’s letterhead to fraudulently produce documents.
Kaiser Aluminum Fabricated Products in Heath, Ohio, fired an employee after an outside audit of the company’s computers and e-mail records discovered the worker had e-mailed some sexually explicit content to coworkers. Duramax Marine in Hiram, Ohio, similarly fired a veteran employee after the company installed software that found the worker was attempting to access porn from his work computer.
“There is no expectation of privacy when you are on your employer’s dime,” said Kimberly Lapensee, Butler Twp. administrator. “It does not matter if you work for a public company, government or private company … you are paid to do a job which does not include viewing Internet sites that are not work related or inappropriate.”
Butler Twp. monitors its computer and e-mail system on a daily basis to ensure employees are obeying the law, acting responsibly, avoiding inappropriate websites and not using social media during work hours, Lapensee said.
The township in 2007 performed routine maintenance on its computer system and found that members of the fire department had been accessing and downloading violent and pornographic Internet videos on work computers during work time, court records show.
The township disciplined or fired about 10 employees, but some firefighters appealed their termination and won on appeal and were reinstated. Appellate court judges ruled the township did not have a policy in place that provided specific guidance for appropriate computer usage for firefighters.
The township has since revised its code of ethics policy.
Employers have the legal right to monitor their computer systems, and most do to ensure workers are not acting or communicating in ways that could make their organizations liable in workplace lawsuits or regulatory investigations, said Flynn, who is also the author of “The ePolicy Toolkit.”
Employees are paid to work — not to talk to friends, engage in personal matters or look at online videos — and managers want to be certain workers are being productive, she said.
“Thanks to monitoring, you can spot problems and ideally stop them in their tracks before they become a major disaster,” she said. “Employers really need to be proactive and protect their companies, and employees have a right to work in a civil business environment.”.”
But there are literally no laws restricting how employers can monitor their computer systems, and the courts consistently rule that managers can read anything they want, including sensitive personal messages, because they own the computers, said Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute in New Jersey.
The lack of oversight means employers can use the information for any purposes, and there are no controls on who can view workers’ messages.
“IT employees have access to everything in the system and often read other employees’ e-mail for their own amusement,” Maltby said.
Through snooping, employers may find out information about their workers that may motivate managers to terminate employment for discriminatory reasons, such as having certain religious beliefs, disabilities or family issues, said Mike Brickner, director of communications and public policy with the ACLU of Ohio.
“We see cases where rules are used as a guise to discriminate against certain people,” Brickner said.
Some groups are pushing for some workplace privacy protections.
Earlier this year, state Sen. Charleta Tavares, D-Columbus, introduced a bill that would prohibit employers and other organizations from requiring jobs applicants or employees to provide access to their private electronic accounts, such as personal e-mail, Twitter and Facebook.
“Regardless of the reasons (employers) are trying to gather information and access your personal pass codes is wrong, and it shouldn’t be required to get a job or keep a job,” she said.
Tavares previously noted that: “Employees should not have to give the keys to their personal and private information just to gain or maintain employment.”
The bill has not emerged from committee. But Tavares said there should be a line that employers cannot cross when it comes to workplace snooping.
“Technology has advanced so quickly that laws have not kept up,” she said.