Should employers have unlimited access to employee data files stored on organizational IT systems?

The author of this essay will be arguing against the topic statement.  One can see reasons why employers need the right to access employee data files in certain official circumstances.  But giving them unlimited access is not justifiable. As workplaces have become computerized, “questions have arisen as to an employer’s right to monitor personal use of these devices in the workplace. Cases indicate that an employee uses e-mail and the Internet for personal purposes at his or her peril.”  (McEvoy, 2002, p.69)  Employers usually claim that since they own the communications infrastructure in the company, they can decide policies regarding its use.  The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 and its subsequent amendments bring clarity to this conflict.  In addition to “protecting workers’ rights to organize into unions, the NLRA protects the right of workers to communicate freely with one another about such terms and conditions of employment as compensation, vacations, and job security.” (McEvoy, 2002, p.69)  Hence, employers will have to be careful not to breach any provisions under this law.  Notwithstanding ethical and other practical reasons why unlimited monitoring of employees is unacceptable, the legal environment thus discourages the tendency.

It is a common practice for employers to scrutinize past behavior of a potential employee and make sure that the latter is not prone to criminal or other disruptive behavior.  Statistics show that through such monitoring a tiny minority of employees are found out for taking illegal (or recreational) drugs during their term of employment.  The list of banned drugs includes Marijuana, Cocaine, Opiates, Amphetamines, etc.  Excessive use of alcohol can also be in conflict with terms of employment.  Based on suspicions raised through the monitoring process, the Medical Review Officer (MRO) follows by collecting samples of urine, blood, etc from employees (or candidates) and performs comprehensive exams in a laboratory to screen for drug usage. (Connerley, et. al., 2001, p.73)  Once tell-tale traces are found out the employee is liable to legal prosecution. But conducting background checks on prospective employees by way of surreptitious monitoring is not only ethically questionable but also wrought with legal risk.

Previous employers are also caught in a quagmire for the risk of eliciting a defamation suit from disgruntled former employees.  Since electronic monitoring increases the changes of leakage of sensitive employee information, corporate laws pertaining to usage of employee/candidate information have gotten stringent over the years.  This is a positive development, for otherwise, important private information will be subject to misuse and exploitation.  And, in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) age, electronic communication between employees has thrown open many new ways of information leakage.

And finally, it is important for employers to ensure no discrimination exists, either in the form of racism, sexism or ageism during the tenure of employment. It is also important that the tests for selection and appraisal are standardized in order to prevent claims of arbitrary and / or discriminatory hiring practices.  In the context of global threat of terror, some companies are especially scrupulous of hiring personnel from Islamic/Middle-Eastern backgrounds or of radical political affiliations.  Hence monitoring select candidates’ personal, private communication for possible clues is becoming commonplace. (Fuss & Snowden, 2004, p.54) This is an infringement on privacy as well as an act of discrimination on part of the employers. Hence on grounds of upholding high ethical standards within the corporate environment, employers should shy away from such surveillance practices.

Works Cited:

Connerley, Mary L., Richard D. Arvey, and Charles J. Bernardy. “Criminal Background Checks for Prospective and Current Employees: Current Practices among Municipal Agencies.” Public Personnel Management 30.2 (2001): 173.

Fuss, Timothy, and Lynne Snowden. “Importance of Background Investigation.” Law & Order Mar. 2004: 58+.

Mcevoy, Sharlene A. “E-Mail and Internet Monitoring and the Workplace: Do Employees Have a Right to Privacy?.” Communications and the Law 24.2 (2002): 69+.