Two rulings from the office of B.C.'s privacy commissioner support the right of employers to keep track of their employees through cellphones and GPS devices in vehicles, but employers will be wise to exercise that right fairly and within reason.
An adjudicator in the office of privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham cleared two elevator companies in complaints that they violate privacy laws when they track employees' movements and how and where they drive company vehicles.
The technology to allow employers to track their employees' every move is readily available; in fact, its use is widespread. Navigation devices record where a vehicle goes, how much time it spends in one spot and even how it is driven - speeding or sudden stops and rapid acceleration could be an indication of bad driving habits. Company-owned cellphones can be set to transmit location information every few minutes.
Complaints to the privacy commissioner's office suggested those measures would lead managers to pressure employees to work faster, and the constant monitoring was an affront to dignity. But the adjudicator said those complaints overstate the impact of technology.
In essence, those electronic devices are no different than a supervisor standing at a window that looks out over a factory floor. An employer has the right to ensure equipment and employees' time are being used properly and effectively. Apart from productivity, a business has a right to protect its reputation and an obligation to protect itself from liability.
Similar principles apply to the use of computers. No employee should assume he or she has an unrestricted right to privacy in the use of a company computer for email, surfing the Internet or posting information through social media. An employer should abide by principles of reasonableness and fair conduct, but if a business owns the equipment and is paying for the employee's time, it has a right to know how those resources are used.
A business has a right to ensure its computers and networks are not being used for illegal or unethical purposes, such as downloading pornography or the transmission of proprietary information to a competitor.
The technology can work both ways. A surveillance camera can be intrusive, but cameras and other monitoring equipment also provide an unbiased record, which can help protect employees from vindictive managers or conniving colleagues. Monitoring the use of vehicles and other equipment can reveal minor problems that can be corrected before they become major problems.
Being monitored is not an insult to a worker's professionalism, any more than locks on business doors or bank vaults imply that everyone is dishonest.
Employers' rights are not unrestricted - employees are allowed a reasonable level of privacy, according to a ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2012. It is contrary to the Criminal Code to listen in on phone calls without consent from one of the parties. Employers cannot monitor computers and other equipment to obtain employees' private information.
Regardless of rights and legalities, draconian rules are counterproductive. The key is to have clear, up-to-date policies and to ensure employees are fully aware of those policies.
When a new employee fully understands that monitoring is a condition of employment, he or she has no cause for complaint. Problems arise when employers and employees don't have a clear understanding of what is expected of each other.
This editorial originally appeared in the Times Colonist.
© Copyright 2013