Electronic Monitoring in Workplace and Ethical Dilemmas of Corporate Policy Documents

The technology is dramatically amending our workplaces. In this post, I touch on ethical dilemmas associated with electronic surveillance of employees. 

The Corporate Security, Internet and Social Media Policy are typically the first documents most employee must agree to before starting the service. When talking in the context of employee monitoring, the main issue of the corporate policy documents is that theSE rules are rarely if ever concerned with employee rights protection and never really address any of the ethical concerns that would typically accompany the use of surveillance technologies.

The company guidelines frequently go on and on about all kinds of reasons for protecting the company itself, such as:

  • the need to improve the workplace security
  • guard the brand
  • or increase the overall productivity

One of the corporate security policies I’ve seen in the past even reasoned that employee security (and inadvertently also the activity logging associated with it) is used: ‘…to support and coordinate people, process, and technological resources’. The statement about coordinating people always left me uneasy…

But let’s speak about the monitoring in a typical workplace. In most places of work, monitoring is not even realized. We enter the office with a swipe of the access card, get into the camera-monitored corporate office and sit down at our cubicles that host our computers. That’s the experience for most of us.  But how many of us think about the fact, that these 3 systems can easily be leveraged by our employers to collect data on a lot of our behaviors. For example, it can easily be derived from the logs at what point did we entered or left the building, how long it took us to take a lunch or a bathroom break, and if our computer is connected to active directory, it’s not hard to see the length of our active computer sessions, collect information on which Internet sites we visit or see how we use the social networks.

There are many ways to misuse employee activity data. According to American Management Association, 66% of American companies use electronic surveillance methods to monitor employee activities: “45% of employers are tracking content, keystrokes, 43% store and review computer files, 12% monitor the blogosphere and 10% monitor social networking sites. The 28% of surveyed employers fired workers for e-mail, 30% for internet misuse and only two U.S. states require employers to notify staff about monitoring.” Amanet.org. (2018)

“Ethical issues should not be ignored in computer science and information systems as they can appear in lots of unexpected ways” (Dawson, 2015).

It’s not hard to imagine, looking at the stats, that some of us may have the conflicting feelings to comply with the usual corporate policy documents and often feel that signing the policy documents is not in the best interest of employees. Why? Well, one of the reasons is also that they typically conclude with a statement that policy breaches are subject to disciplinary response, up to and including job termination.

“Moral distress, finally, occurring when one believes one knows an ethical dilemma is at stake and the morally right thing to do, but institutional constraints make it impossible to pursue the desired course of action” (Kälvemark, et al., 2004).

I believe that most employees eventually comply with the corporate policies influencing the decision by the trust in well-intentions of their employer, but likely also motivated by the need to remain employed, which is a more problematic part of the equation.


“1988 study found that respondents cited the adoption of business codes as the most effective measure for encouraging ethical business behavior” (Cleek and Leonard, 1998).

This 30-year-old study is in my view outdated. In my opinion, to remain highly sensitive to ethical issues, we need to stay firmly rooted in our moral decisions no matter how big or small is the issue at hand. The same should apply to organizations. Rober Noyce once said: “If ethics are poor at the top, that behavior is copied down through the organization.” (Bednarz, 2013). I very much believe in the merit of this quote. As a matter of fact, it is precisely this, that I find to be one of the essential ingredients of a successful company. In my view, one of the major roles of the organization leadership is to continually take the ethical high ground and in such way motivate rest of the employees to make moral/ethical decisions. So, when it comes to corporate policies and monitoring, firms should be clear about what behavior is logged and how often it is reviewed. It is the power of knowing that makes the difference and also influences the trust in leadership.

Then, the most employees can easily remain highly ethical in their daily Internet use, but also other behaviors which positively affects everyone in the firm, including leadership and that is a much better way to transform entire company’s culture. Certainly, I would personally be inclined to believe a company that is straightforward and precisely describes the state of employee monitoring.


Amanet.org. (2018). The Latest on Workplace Monitoring and Surveillance . [online] Available at: http://www.amanet.org/training/articles/the-latest-on-workplace-monitoring-and-surveillance.aspx [Accessed 21 Apr. 2018].

Dawson, C.W. (2015) Projects in Computing and Information Systems: A Student’s Guide. 3rd edn. Harlow: Pearson Education

Kälvemark, S., Höglund, A. T., Hansson, M. G., Westerholm, P., & Arnetz, B. (2004). Living with conflicts-ethical dilemmas and moral distress in the health care system. Social science & medicine, 58(6), 1075-1084.a

Bednarz, T. F. (2013). Ethics in business. Practical Ethics for Food Professionals: Ethics in Research, Education and the Workplace, 75-91.

Cleek, M. A., & Leonard, S. L. (1998). Can corporate codes of ethics influence behavior?. Journal of business ethics, 17(6), 619-630.

Brown, T. A., Sautter, J. A., Littvay, L., Sautter, A. C., & Bearnes, B. (2010). Ethics and personality: Empathy and narcissism as moderators of ethical decision making in business students. Journal of Education for Business, 85(4), 203-208.