Last week, new federal rules went into effect that require U.S. companies to keep track of all the e-mails, instant messages and other electronic documents generated by their employees. According to a survey by the ePolicy Institute, 9 out of 10 employers already observe employee electronic behavior in some way.
Many people have questions about spying in the office. Tory Johnson, "Good Morning America's" workplace contributor, has answers.
Question: Why do companies want to monitor employees' electronic activity in the first place?
Answer: The objective of monitoring systems isn't to "catch" people doing something wrong. It's to try to prevent it from happening in the first place. So, to that end, companies want you to know you're being monitored. The monitoring is a way of saying, "Look, if you do this we will find out. So don't do it."
Question: How can I know if my boss is spying on me?
Answer: There's no way to know, but you can assume there's some sort of monitoring going on -- most companies do it. While companies aren't under any obligation to tell employees that they're being monitored -- or how they're being monitored -- most companies are very up front about it. Read your policy handbook -- it's likely in there.
Question: Do I have any rights? Can I go to my employer and say enough is enough, your spying is crossing the line?
Answer: No -- you're using the company computer and it's company property. Your company has the right to monitor that computer and determine the usage of that property.
Question: Should I completely stop using my work computer for personal use?
Answer: For the most part, if you're a strong performer, you can get away with using your computer for some personal matters unless it's in direct violation of company policy. Just don't do it too often. Think of it this way: Spend as much time doing personal business on the Web as you would on personal phone calls at work. Would you make a two-hour personal phone call from your desk? Probably not.
Remember, some things aren't okay to do ever. Looking at a porn site -- even if it's only for a minute -- is not okay. A good rule of thumb is this: If you wouldn't want your boss to read it, see it, or watch you do it, then don't do it at work.
Question: What will happen to me if I don't heed that advice?
Answer: There are a few things that can happen. One of the most common penalties is suspending your Internet privileges. If it's determined that your personal Internet and e-mail usage is excessive, expect your employer to end your Internet access ---especially if e-mail and the Internet aren't essential to your job function.
Or, the employer will limit your access to certain sites, using software to block the specific sites which your boss deems you're visiting too often. That can effectively prevent you from checking personal e-mail accounts or visiting shopping, gambling, porn and gossip sites.
A new approach involves monetary fines. Many employers say they're beginning to impose fines starting at $1,000 per violation for abuse or excessive use of Internet and personal e-mail.
Question: How exactly do employers monitor my activity?
Answer: Most monitoring is done two ways. There is key stroke monitoring, where everything you type is recorded. There is also screen shot monitoring, which is a record of what has appeared on your screen. People think that if it wasn't saved, it isn't recorded, but that's not true.