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Think before you surf at work

On the Job

Think twice about what you write in your e-mails, which Web sites youbrowse and what you say on the telephone.

The recent snooping scandal at Hewlett-Packard got me thinking aboutworkplace privacy, or the lack thereof.

HP's case involved hired investigators who used pretexting, orgetting information under false pretenses, to obtain phone records of itsboard directors, two employees and several journalists. It's an extreme --and possible illegal -- case of employer surveillance.

But how many of us are really aware of the extent of employermonitoring at our own offices? Do you know if your boss is tracking everykeystroke? What about Internet use?

Lewis Maltby, an attorney and president of the National WorkrightsInstitute in Princeton, N.J., says most workers know monitoring occurs, but"they have no idea how intrusive the monitoring is."

"Almost all employers monitor today, and the IT employees doing themonitoring can open anything and everything they choose. They don't need areason to monitor," he says.

Here's the reality: Seventy-six percent of employers monitor workers'Web surfing to prevent inappropriate use, according to the 2005 ElectronicMonitoring & Surveillance Survey by the American Management Association andthe ePolicy Institute. Computer monitoring includes tracking keystrokes andtime as well as reviewing computer files.

And 51 percent of employers track the amount of time workers spend onthe phone, up from 9 percent in 2001. More companies are using videosurveillance to prevent theft, violence and sabotage on the job: 51 percentin 2005 compared with 33 percent in 2001.

Employers have legitimate reasons for watching and tracking workers'computer and telephone use.

For starters, managers are concerned about productivity. (Admit it,who doesn't check their personal e-mail account or even shop online at workonce in a while?)

Another factor is increased global competition, says ChristineWalters, a human resources and employment law consultant in Glyndon. That'sleading employers to be more vigilant about securing intellectual propertyand client lists. Many use monitoring to address worker safety, too, shesays.

"When people talk about employer monitoring, it's like, 'Oh, it's sobad,' " she says. "It's very often borne out of concern to protect employeesafety and protect property."

Still, employees have few rights when it comes to privacy at work.Except for a federal wiretapping law prohibiting employers fromeavesdropping on workers' personal calls, few laws regulate workplacemonitoring, says Maltby of the National Workrights Institute.

"As a practical matter, employees should assume that they have noprivacy at work," he says. "[But] that's not the way it ought to be."

So what can workers do?

Both Walters and Maltby advise workers to find out about theiremployer's policy on workplace monitoring and surveillance.

On a more practical level, take common sense measures, like limitingpersonal use of work phones and computers. And don't say or write anythingyou would be embarrassed for your boss or colleagues to hear or read.

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer advocacygroup, provides more information on this topic in its Web site.

What do you think of employer monitoring? Or anything else at work? Send your stories, tips and questions to Please include your first name and your city.

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