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Should Employers Monitor Employees’ Messages?

Point Counterpoint

Yes: Monitoring can be essential to maintaining a safe and productive workplace.

Digital communications have transformed work. Email, instant messaging and social media platforms have become integral tools for workplace collaboration and communication. However, this interconnectedness also raises concerns about the potential for monitoring messages and employee privacy. For employers, it requires a balancing act.

Caroline Collins, SHRM-CP
Caroline Collins, SHRM-CP

Monitoring can be essential for maintaining a strong work environment, protecting sensitive information and ensuring compliance with legal requirements. The practice can help employers maintain a productive and safe work environment by identifying and addressing issues such as harassment, discrimination or other inappropriate conduct and protecting employees from harm.

Monitoring can also serve to safeguard sensitive and confidential information, including employee records, customer data, financial information and trade secrets. Monitoring employee communications can help prevent data breaches, leaks of proprietary information or the inadvertent sharing of sensitive data.

In some industries, there are legal and regulatory obligations that require organizations to monitor and retain certain communications. For example, financial services companies are subject to strict regulations from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and U.S. Department of Justice regarding the retention of electronic communications. Monitoring can help companies remain compliant with these requirements.

Monitoring can also help prevent the misuse of company resources. Employees sometimes use messaging systems for personal purposes, such as chatting with friends or family, shopping online, or browsing social media. Excessive personal use of company resources can decrease productivity and even be a security risk. Monitoring can deter employees from misusing company resources and help identify and address potential problems.

It’s important to monitor employee messaging systems in a way that respects employee privacy rights. Employers should establish clear policies on monitoring and communicate them effectively to employees. Employee handbooks are an ideal tool to help ensure that employees are aware of the company’s stance on monitoring and what to expect.

Employers also need to comply with common law protections against invasion of privacy and the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which is the only federal law that directly governs the monitoring of electronic communications in the workplace.

It’s also essential for companies to be transparent about their monitoring practices—the purposes behind them—and the steps taken to protect employee privacy when conducting monitoring. This transparency can help build trust within the organization and show that monitoring is not about invading privacy but about protecting the business and its employees.

Ultimately, the decision of whether to monitor employee messaging systems is complex and must be made on a case-by-case basis. When done responsibly, and with the right intentions, monitoring can be a valuable tool for businesses. However, it’s important to balance the company’s interests with employee privacy.

By establishing clear policies, being transparent about monitoring practices and respecting employee privacy rights, companies can strike that balance.

Caroline Collins, SHRM-CP, is director of human resources at the Marwin Company, a building products manufacturer based in Columbia, S.C.

No: When employers monitor communication channels, they can cut off the free flow of information.

Companies will have no reason to actively monitor employee communications when HR takes the appropriate steps. In taking this position, I assume that HR has made it clear to employees (as any experienced HR professional would) that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy on employer-owned and managed communication channels. HR also needs to clearly articulate the organization’s acceptable-use policies regarding equipment and messaging. Additionally, employees need to understand that anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies apply to in-person interactions and digital communications.

Eric Mochnacz, SHRM-SCP
Eric Mochnacz, SHRM-SCP

With these guidelines in place, employees generally know that their digital discussions should be appropriate and in alignment with company policies—if you wouldn’t say it in front of the CEO, don’t post it on Slack. Additionally, workers should know that any type of digital communication is discoverable, so it’s best to engage only in appropriate, professional discussions via email, Slack or other digital communication tools.

Employers need to make these expectations, guidelines and policies clear during onboarding and in employee handbooks. They also need to address violations appropriately and in a way that will encourage behavior change. That will ensure employees feel empowered to report inappropriate language or behavior.

The idea that employers—and by extension, HR—need to constantly monitor employee messages comes from a lack of trust. Regularly looking at employee emails and Slack messages to ensure compliance with company policies is detrimental to establishing trust. And can HR and managers really get valuable insights about conversations through these channels if employees know they’re being watched?

Building trust among your workforce is essential to retaining that workforce. Employees want to know their employer trusts them. That trust immediately erodes if they feel they can’t speak openly on employee communication channels.

Imagine a scenario where an employee makes a mistake and reaches out to a colleague to help remedy it. If the employee’s manager is monitoring the chat and immediately steps in, the employee may perceive that the company doesn’t trust them to handle problems without a supervisor’s help. And because their chat was being monitored and a supervisor intervened, that employee will now forever be hesitant to DM a colleague for an assist.

Your employer brand is how your current, former and potential employees talk about you. Do you really want to be known as the HR department that sneakily monitors all company messaging channels? It’s hard to attract good talent when one of the first things a job seeker sees on Glassdoor is that the employer doesn’t trust its employees and that their Slack and email are constantly monitored.

If it is standard practice for your company to regularly monitor private email or messaging communications, and employees know it, you risk that they won’t engage on these platforms about work-related issues because they’re afraid that someone will potentially use their messages against them. In turn, managers will learn nothing about what’s going on with the workforce because their people will be hesitant to share information about themselves or what’s happening in the office.

With monitoring, employers potentially cut off that flow. Monitoring employee communications yields distrust, and distrust is never a great foundation for a strong culture. 

Eric Mochnacz, SHRM-SCP, is director of operations and a senior consultant at Red Clover, an HR consulting firm based in Kinnelon, N.J.


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