Do you ever get the feeling someone is spying on you?


Javacia N. Harris


February 14, 2007



If you use a computer at work (and these days, who doesn't?) someone probably is: your boss

seems harmless.

Your best friend forwards you a funny e-mail with a picture of some drunken naked dude, and you pass it on to a few pals at work. Or your PC at home is fried, so you go into work early and send off your résumé from a work computer.

No one knows and no one cares, right?


Even when your boss isn't lurking around your cubicle, she can still peek over your shoulder any time, thanks to monitoring software that employers across the country are using to track what their workers do on company computers.

As technology becomes more prevalent in the workplace, you have good reason to become more paranoid. Studies show that employers are not only monitoring workers' e-mail and online activities, but also reprimanding, even firing, employees caught engaging in what they deem to be inappropriate use. While most terminations result from surfing pornographic or gambling websites, it doesn't stop there.

{}You're fired

According to CBS News, two longtime PNC Bank employees in New Jersey were fired in 2004 for forwarding an e-mail message that included a picture of a bare-breasted woman with Hillary Clinton's head superimposed. Another report told of a woman who applied for another job via her company e-mail account and was confronted by her boss the next day.

Of the 526 employers surveyed in 2005 by the ePolicy Institute and American Management Association, 76 percent were monitoring their workers' website connections. The study also found that 26 percent of employers had fired workers for misusing the Internet and 25 percent had terminated employees for misusing e-mail.

"If it's on a computer in a corporate setting, the owner of that business can install any number of tracking and blocking devices so they can control what does occur on their network and track those things," said Ken Colburn, founder of Data Doctors, a Tempe, Ariz., chain of computer service centers that helps companies install monitoring software. "Every screenshot, every keystroke can be recorded and played back."

Employers can install software to track the sites you visit and how long you're online. Your e-mail can be scanned for offensive language and for words such as "job offer." Or your employer could choose to routinely review your e-mail to see if you're spending too much time chatting with your mom or sending angry messages to colleagues about your jerky boss.

If you think you're playing it safe by sending these e-mails from your Gmail account, think again. With monitoring software, your employer can read anything that crosses the company's server.

"It's amazing to me people use e-mail like they used to stand around the old water cooler and chat with each other, but it's not the same thing," said Margaret Morford, president of theHRedge, a Nashville consulting firm. Morford said you should be careful not only about e-mails you send, but also those you receive. Don't give out your work e-mail address to all your friends and don't be silly enough to give it out if you're hunting for another job.

{}Within the law

It's completely legal for your boss to electronically spy on you at work.

"The Federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act basically says the computer system is the property of the employer and the employer has the legal right to monitor all activity ... and that the employee has no reasonable expectation of privacy when using the company's computer system," said Nancy Flynn, executive director of t he ePolicy Institute, which conducts regular surveys and serves as a management training and consulting firm.

Employers not only have the right to read your e-mail and track your web surfing, they have an obligation to do so, said Rob Ashmore, an Atlanta labor and employment law attorney who has frequently worked cases on the matter.

"The employer has a legal responsibility to maintain a safe work place," he said. "And that has been interpreted to mean the employer has an obligation to take reasonable steps to ensure that there is not, for example, unlawful harassment on the premises."

Nowadays, harassment not only comes in the form of a pat on the behind, but also an e-mail with a dirty joke.

Under new federal rules that took effect in December, businesses must also have policies in place to maintain and keep track of all electronic documents, including e-mails, in case the company is sued and the materials are one day needed as evidence.

"What people don't realize is if I delete something from my computer, it's already been backed up by our server and my computer will have a record of it," Ashmore said.

Fear of litigation is pushing employers to crack the whip on Internet, e-mail and even instant messenger use, Flynn said. The ePolicy Institute and American Management Association found that 24 percent of employers have had e-mail subpoenaed and another 15 percent have battled workplace lawsuits triggered by employee e-mail.

But employers also don't want workers putting a strain on technological resources.

"If everybody was listening to online radio or streaming video or streaming music while they work, they're chewing up all that bandwidth that we need for appropriate use," said Colburn, who prohibits his employees from doing "anything that's going to excessively bog down our network connection." Workers are also prohibited from downloading copyrighted materials, a practice popular back in Napster's heyday.

Lack of productivity is also a concern. "Our surveys show that 86 percent of employees engage in personal e-mail when they're at the office," Flynn said.

And while some employers allow limited personal use, some workers haven't quite grasped the concept of {dcidc}limited. "Ten percent of employees spend four or more hours a day e-mailing, which is half the work day," Flynn said.


{}the line

Nonetheless, some groups say employers are going too far.

Since it's easy to set up monitoring devices that can flag inappropriate content, it's unnecessary for your boss to read your personal information with abandon, said Jeremy Gruber, legal director of the National Workrights Institute.

"No one would argue that an employer doesn't have the right to monitor the amount of time that you spend on the Internet and act accordingly, but they don't need to read your personal e-mail," Gruber said.

"If employers cannot determine that an employee is not doing their job sufficiently as a result of looking at their work product, there's something far more problematic with the employer's workplace."

Still, if you don't want your computer to cost you your job, Flynn said you should simply read your company's Internet and e-mail usage policies and follow them. If reasonable personal use is allowed, keep your visits to a minimum. But if personal use is prohibited, stick to text messaging to hash out weekend plans with your pals (but not on a company-issued phone).

The bottom line, Flynn said, is this: "If you don't want to hear that message read out loud on CNN tonight, don't send it."

Warning: Your boss is reading your blog

Your boss can even dictate what you do on your computer at home.

A few years ago, a Delta Airlines flight attendant made news when she was fired for posting pictures of herself in her uniform on her blog ( ). In fact, being fired for blogging at home on your own time on your own computer has become so common the blogosphere has given the phenomenon a name — "dooced." (The term refers to blogger Heather Armstrong, who was fired in 2002 for writing about her job on her blog, )

"When you blog at home, you are not protected by the First Amendment," said Nancy Flynn, executive director of t he ePolicy Institute. "If you post content on your blog at home that offends our boss or violates your company's ethics policy, you could find yourself unemployed."

Most states, including Kentucky, are "employment at will" states, meaning that your employer can fire you for just about any reason as long as federal discrimination guidelines aren't violated.

Thus, you are strongly advised to review your company's ethics policy and code of conduct to be sure your blog isn't breaking the rules.

"You can do a blog search in Google for your company name anytime just to see what customers and employees might be saying," said Ken Colburn, founder of Data Doctors, a chain of computer service centers. "We have already actually found employees...that were actually planning on leaving the company who had all of their plans listed on their blog."