Dec. 3, 2006 -- 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.
Question: What if I'm working from home on my personal computer -- can they still monitor me?
Answer: If you're sending or receiving e-mail through the company system then yes, they can monitor you. But if you're chatting on an instant message program about your boss, they aren't going to see that on your personal computer.
Question: What about e-mails I send from a personal e-mail account on a work computer -- can my company monitor those?
Answer: Absolutely. It doesn't matter what account that e-mail is sent from. If you're doing it on a work computer, it's traceable and visible. So if you send a nasty e-mail about your boss from your private e-mail on a work computer, your company can see it and are within their rights to discipline you for it.
As far as whether you even can check your personal e-mail at work, most companies do allow you to send personal e-mail during your lunch break. It's your break and you can use it for personal use.
Question: Do all employers monitor everyone all the time? Or is it more on a need basis -- where if they have a reason to monitor someone, they will?
Answer: You should assume you're being monitored all the time. Productivity is only one issue. Yes, if you're a strong performer you're less likely to be a target. However, that doesn't address the legal issues companies face. They might still be monitoring your computer just to make sure to cover themselves legally.
Question: What about monitoring phone conversations? Do companies listen in on the private conversations I have on my work phone?
Answer: The phone is a little bit different in that there are state laws in regards to recording phone conversations. You need consent in many states. There's definitely a record of phone numbers you've dialed and how long you've spent on the phone, but usually your conversations can't be recorded without consent.