Yes, They ARE Watching You


A friendly reminder from Dan Erwin. At work, you are being watched, checked in on, and listened to all the time:

From e-mail monitoring and website blocking to phone tapping and GPS tracking, employers increasingly use monitoring and surveillance to ‘manage productivity and minimize litigation, security, and other risks.’

He directs us to this survey from a few years back on electronic monitoring & surveillance, which lays things out for us in pretty stark terms:

28% of organizations have fired employees for misuse of the internet
28% have fired employees for misuse of e-mail
76% monitor employees’ web connections
43% store and review workers’ data files (spreadsheets, word processing documents, etc.)
66% review employees’ e-mail messages

On this week’s podcast, we talk with Dan about how organizations are using technology to keep tabs on their employees, and what steps should employees take in response. Are companies turning into Big Brother, or is this just evidence that transparency is a two-way street? And how does trust figure in?

Here’s the archive of Friday’s podcast:

Our Guest:

Dan Erwin is a nationally recognized management consultant, having coached more than 400 managers and executives from many of the finest corporations in the world, including an extensive client base from the Fortune 500. He blogs at Human Capital League and his own site.

Our music is Semi-Funk by Kevin MacLeod


  1. 2017-01-22 16:52:43

    Wow! Thank you! I continually wanted to write on my blog something like that. Can I include a part of your post to my website?

  2. 2011-08-28 06:20:42

    You surely were also reading the same passage as I, "It is in our lives and not our words that our religion must be read..".

  3. 2011-03-28 14:30:36

    I got yelled at once for reading a newspaper online during lunch. This at a company where I arrived early every morning, stayed late every night, and worked through lunch about half the time. When I'm getting all the work done that you can find (and asking for more), and still have time left over, what would you have me do? Work slower? (Why did I arrive early and stay late, then? Because to do otherwise was called 'not being a team player'. Even though the recession meant there wasn't enough work to fill the time.) It's multitasking. Even during busy periods there are moments of downtime: when a file is processing, when a client is dithering in your ear.... You're hiring me, not buying me. Why are people allowed to take personal phone calls on their own cells? Smoke breaks? Do the web monitors also watch the number and duration of bathroom breaks? Do I have time to grab a quick kleenex and a cough drop, or is that cheating you out of the time you're paying for? Look, if you don't trust me, if you suspect me of grabbing at every chance to shortchange you, then I shouldn't be working for you, for both our sakes.

  4. 2011-03-28 10:55:55

    One of the challenges that I face as a software consultant is that a significant portion of my job involves "searching" the internet for answers to technical questions. I've been on projects where the client's Internet policy blocked around 2/3rds of the sites brought up by Google, which actually reduces my productivity. Also, as a consultant and a professional, I am responsible for my own time. I bill hours based-on what I work, whether I'm at the client's location M-F, 9-5, or working from home at 2am. If I want to quickly check a news website while some code is compiling or I'm waiting for something to install, that's my choice. I often multi-task, swithing from one window to another (sometimes using several at the same time), and yet I consistently meet my deadlines and exceed expectations. All-in-all, I think it has a lot to do with a company's culture. A business that is smart, that hires people who like their job and empowers them to achieve their goals, won't need to worry about wasting a bunch of time monitoring their activities. Slap a porn filter on the internet and let individuals decide for themselves. There are plenty of other ways people can find to "waste-time" or "goof-off" other than "surfing-the-web". Ultimately, if people are unhappy, making the internet go away isn't going to magically "fix" that underlying problem.

  5. 2011-03-28 10:36:59

    Can an email sent to a wife about the kids/school/house/family on a private email account but during work hours be read by the company?

  6. 2011-03-28 10:22:55

    Trust but verify. :) Sadly, this is even more necessary than in the past, when the USPS had watchers behind one-way mirrors overlooking the mail room workers.

  7. 2011-03-28 09:06:34

    Mark -- I think blocking access, in some settings, is a much better approach than monitoring, since it removes the "looking over the shoulder" aspect of surveillance. In the setting you describe, where people are doing shift work processing orders, allowing access to Youtube or Gmail might be likened to mounting TVs throughout a factory assembly line. Which makes more sense -- having people stroll around the shop floor to see what people are watching, or just get those TVs out of there? On the other hand, some companies report significant benefits associated with reasonably open access, particularly to social media sites. IBM, in particular, supports participation in social media sites both within and external to the company as a means of encouraging creativity and collaboration as well as developing leadership.

  8. 2011-03-28 08:20:21

    Phil - I'm from the older generation, having worked with computers since the late 70's, and I've seen all sorts of "Excuses" for using company resources of all types - to give you an example of why NOT to trust, we had a pharmacy, 2 shifts running 7d/w, they could not process all the orders and were considering adding a third shift (could not add more people because of space issues in the building) - I got them to let me implement Internet blocking, blocking almost everything that wasn't a company business partner, web-email (since all employees have a company email account), etc.... There was a lot of complaining, but not one complaint could justify a single site they wanted as a "Business" necessary site - productivity dropped for about 1 week, then we found an overall 30% gain in productivity as well as employee attitudes getting better - the better happened because people that were not working, playing on the net, had to work, and that made the good workers happier and their load less, they didn't add that third shift, they were able to handle more business with the same number of people. I've seen this same thing happen at more than 100 companies in the last 5 years, never seen it decrease productivity for more than the initial week of complaining by the abusers.

  9. 2011-03-28 07:43:26

    Let that be a lesson: better encrypt all those individual file downloads from the Pmates web site!

  10. 2011-03-28 05:24:09

    I have no problem with my boss monitoring me. I'm a salaried employee, I work hard, and I rarely read anything non-work related except for at lunch. If you are doing much more than that, you should be called out on it. I know, I used to be you.

  11. 2011-03-28 04:01:01

    Whilst we pay Phil and make use of his considerable abilities, we have been very careful not to provide any editorial direction. Chris (Phil's CEO)

  12. 2011-03-27 23:27:39

    Morton -- Fear not, the CEO of the company I work for is a regular reader of this blog. I'm sure he will take your suggestion that he root out dangerous elements (like me) under advisement. However, I must take exception to your characterization of what I wrote above, and what I said in the podcast. No one is describing anything as either "nefarious" or a "crime." I'm questioning the effectiveness of the practice and I'm asking where surveillance should end and trust should kick in. Suppose a company decided to hire a dedicated surveillance staff member for every line employee hired. There's no question they're entitled to do this under law, but would that be a smart business practice? Would that be a company where you would want to work? Companies are legally entitled to do a lot of things, including run themselves into the ground with needless bureaucracy and create an atmosphere of distrust that makes life so unpleasant that no one wants to work there. I don't think it's out of line to ask how can companies ensure security and the protection of their interests without making those two mistakes.

  13. 2011-03-27 22:43:24

    Since the employer 1.) pays your salary, 2.) buys all the equipment you use, and 3.) risks his capital to make a profit (thus enabling 1.), & 2.)), why shouldn't your activities done on his (or her) dime and performed on his (or her) equipment be totally transparent to him (or her)??? Phil Bowermaster makes it sound like employers are committing some nefarious or unfair crime. That's the kind of poisonous attitude that should be identified and rooted out of a company.

  14. 2011-03-27 20:44:19

    Just remember, you work for them in their facilities using their equipment and get effectively paid by them by the hour for that work. You aren't in charge, and it isn't your time. Don't expect them to grant you carte blanche during company time, and you will be all right.

  15. 2011-03-27 20:29:19

    TO: All RE: Heh Well.... ....considering what I witnessed in the 90s at a Fortune 500 company, I'm not overly surprised. A 'co-worker' was going through a rough divorce. And subsequently he was in violation of corporate policy on use of the internet, e.g., browsing porn at work, and the WATTS line, e.g., some chippie he 'hooked-up' with from BC was calling him on the corporate number for free. Corporations have good reason to monitor such activities. And he was 'cashiered' shortly after the company figured out what was going on. As in within three hours. Regards, Chuck(le)

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