Employers ‘must be overt’ when monitoring staff in the workplace

20 Aug 2018 By Emily Burt

TUC research reveals more than half of UK workers are concerned about being watched in some way

Employers must be clear with their staff about their monitoring policies, experts have said, after a new report from the TUC revealed more than half of UK workers believe their boss monitors them at work. 

The national survey of more than 1,200 UK workers, conducted by the TUC in May this year, found 56 per cent of people felt monitoring was going on in the workplace, through methods including CCTV, browsing history and phone logs. In addition, 6 in 10 believed the development of new technologies could increase these practices. 

“While there are many legitimate reasons why employee data may be used for monitoring purposes, such as in high risk, lone-working roles, it is clear that technology is enabling office-based work to be monitored,” Ed Houghton, head of research at the CIPD, told People Management.

He added that the report illustrated the importance of organisations being transparent about their use of data to monitor their workforces, saying: “Workplace surveillance should never be a sticking plaster or substitute for effective people management practices.”

While the report expressed concern over undue surveillance at work, Anthony Sakrouge, head of the employment team at Russell-Cooke, said workplace monitoring was likely to be more widespread than the majority of workers may had anticipated. 

“It’s likely that more than 56 per cent of UK workers are being monitored in some way at work. However, they will nearly always have been warned of the monitoring in question in advance, usually either by a sign or a workplace policy,” he said. 

“Any employer which has computers or online systems and allows employees to use them should have a policy reserving the right to monitor use of these systems. This doesn’t mean they will do this routinely (employers should not usually look at personal emails on a casual basis without good reason) but they are able to reserve that right.”

According to the report, 6 in 10 working people fear greater workplace surveillance through technology will fuel distrust (65 per cent) and discrimination (66 per cent). Failing to warn staff that monitoring is taking place could have legal consequences, Sakrouge warned. 

“Covert monitoring can only be justified in exceptional circumstances,” he said. “Because of the implied term of trust and confidence, which is an essential overarching term in an employment relationship, it is better also to tell them the reason the monitoring is taking place, and what you intend to use any collected data for.”

While the majority of workers (70 per cent) believe workplace monitoring will become more common in the future with the development of new technologies, Nikita Sonecha, employment and data protection solicitor at SA Law, said it was unlikely any new legal changes would be required to accommodate increasing digitisation. 

“Employers need to be overt, not covert, in terms of the data they collect – the rise of technology will mean there are more ways to access that data,” she said. 

“As long as they keep their privacy policies updated and remain explicit about the new ways they are monitoring behaviour, recent changes to GDPR regulations should be sufficient over updating the law itself,” she told People Management

While recent changes to data protection law via the General Data Protection Regulation have further safeguarded the limits to monitoring of staff, the TUC called for new protections to ensure employers only use surveillance for legitimate reasons, and the introduction of tougher enforcement measures to ensure workers are informed of monitoring technologies. 

A recent judgement from Birmingham Employment Tribunal found two repairmen had been unfairly dismissed after trackers on their vans suggested they were using company vehicles for private purposes. The tribunal did not find fault with the surveillance policy, but decided the issue had not been investigated in a proper manner.

“New technologies should not be used to whittle away our right to privacy, even when we’re at work,” Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary, said. “Employers should discuss and agree workplace monitoring policies with their workforces – not impose them upon them.” 

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