Monitoring Employees: Ethical or Not?

If you’re a business owner or leader, you’ve likely thought about the issue of monitoring your employees. Maybe you suspect your secretary is engaging in activity online that doesn’t align with company policies, or perhaps you’ve noticed some important files missing and have reason to believe your VP may be taking them home.

If you’re worried about the behavior of your employees and need some peace of mind, monitoring could be the answer. Or even if you don’t have any specific concerns but simply want to keep an eye on things to prevent poor decisions from taking place, there are myriad ways to monitor the workplace.

But what’s too much? Here are some things to keep in mind when dealing with this complex issue.

Consider the Law

Your first step it approach employee monitoring is to make sure you’re familiar with the legality of your specific situation. Laws vary state to state, so be sure you’ve done your homework. If you have a justifiable business concern (like for prevention of theft or as an extra security measure), most states consider the use of cameras legal.

But not all locations are created equal. While common areas are usually approved for camera use, some areas (like bathrooms or break rooms) may not be. If you plan to use a surveillance system, be sure to look into what’s required of you with signage too. Many times, a written warning about the cameras is necessary to avoid infringing on employees’ privacy.

What’s Your Goal?

The next step in planning how (and when) you’ll monitor employees is to establish what your real goals are. If your concern is limited to one employee, a conversation may be a better course of action. If your goal is to instill a company-wide practice of following strict protocols (say, guidelines for safe food handling in a factory), a surveillance system could be an ideal way to keep your workforce on track. Or, if your primary worry is how company computers are being used, you can look into digital monitoring software to alert you to behaviors that could be problematic. Filtering or blocking certain Web content can also help prevent undesirable online activities from the get-go.

Maybe time is the problem, and you’re encountering employees who take advantage of allotted breaks and have made a habit of showing up late or leaving early. If you operate a business that deals with unloading or loading supply trucks, for instance, it can be hard to have a solid handle on who is where since most of the work is done outside of a traditional office setting. In this sort of scenario, consider mounting security cameras that can give you real insight into the time your employees are putting in. This way, time in and time out cannot be argued.

Disclosure Decisions

Whether you choose to go with a security camera or a digital monitoring service, the final question is how much you want to disclose to employees. Honesty is the best policy. If you put up cameras or employ a digital service to keep an eye on your team, start with a meeting. Have an open conversation about what prompted this step, and what employees can expect. Invite questions, and be ready to answer them. At the end of the meeting, plan to hand out a revised contract and/or HR policy addendum that outlines the new monitoring practices. Depending on your state and your choice of monitoring, it may be in your legal best interest to get signatures from employees stating that they understand what you’ve implemented. These written policies should also clearly explain what is expected of employees, along with the business’s recourse should guidelines be broken.

When it comes to employee monitoring, remember that your goal is to ensure your business isn’t being compromised – but also not to alienate your workforce. Find out the laws around surveillance in your state, and then dig down to what your goals really are. Once you’ve done both of these things, tell your employees about the new system and have them verify in writing that they understand. With a straightforward dialogue — an act of respect they deserve — your employees won’t be blindsided by your monitoring tactics and you can have the peace of mind you’re seeking.

About Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is the Professor of Advanced Media in Residence at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and CEO of The Palmer Group, a consulting practice that helps Fortune 500 companies with technology, media and marketing. Named LinkedIn’s “Top Voice in Technology,” he covers tech and business for Good Day New York, is a regular commentator on CNN and writes a popular daily business blog. He's a bestselling author, and the creator of the popular, free online course, Generative AI for Execs. Follow @shellypalmer or visit



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