April 18, 2001 -- Do you feel like someone is watching your every move at work? You are probably not overly paranoid.
According to new data, nearly 80 percent of major companies now monitor employees' use of e-mail, Internet or phone. That's per the American Management Association, which conducts an annual survey of workplace monitoring and surveillance.
The figure represents a sharp rise from 1997 when only 35 percent of companies kept tabs on their workers. And the increase comes while the percentage of workers with access to office e-mail and Internet remained virtually unchanged.
The AMA study, while not representative of all workplaces, focused on 1,627 large and mid-sized firms among its members and clients which together employ over a quarter of the U.S. work force.
The survey also found that companies increased monitoring across the board. Sixty-three percent now watch Internet usage and 47 percent review e-mails, a climb from 54 percent and 38 percent respectively.
Companies were using the information they gathered to punish transgressions. More than a quarter of the companies surveyed said they have fired employees for misusing office e-mail or the Internet, and 65 percent had disciplined workers.
More companies have also started blocking what they deem inappropriate or unauthorized Web sites in an effort to control offenses.
"It's not just a matter of corporate curiosity, but very real worries about productivity and liability that push these policies," said Eric Rolfe Greenberg, director of management studies for the AMA.
"Personal e-mail can clog a company's telecommunications system, and sexually explicit or other inappropriate material downloaded from the Internet can lead to claims of a hostile work environment," he added.
Ellen Bayer, AMA's human resources practice leader explained: "The lines between one's personal and professional life can blur … but employees ought to engage in some discretion about personal activities carried out during the official hours of work."
Typically, the larger the company, the more incentive it has to check up on its employees, the survey found.
The financial sector — banks, brokerages, insurance and real estate — was the most vigilant, reporting the 92.1 percent of firms participate in some form of surveillance.
More than three-quarters of those who work in wholesale and retail, manufacturing, business and professional services and other non-profit organizations also were watched.
But the AMA pointed out that most of the companies tend to carry out spot checks rather than monitor workers constantly. Usually all employees are subject to occasional snooping, while some firms check up on specific positions more than others.
"Privacy in today's workplace is largely illusory," said Bayer. "Work is carried out on equipment belonging to employers who have a legal right to the work product of employees using it."