Use employee monitoring tools with caution, say Canadian experts

An array of software products has flooded the market promising to help employers rein in time-wasting on the company dime.

The class of applications aimed at controlling employee Web surfing – believed to be the top time-waster in the workplace – is one of the fastest growing enterprise software sales categories, industry insiders say.

The wide range of software tools available for this purpose range from key-loggers to full-suite identity access management applications.

Canadian law leans heavily on the side of employers – allowing them to retrieve data from computers they own.

But legality aside, analysts note there are ethical issues to be aware of, and while employee monitoring benefits some businesses, it is not necessarily for everyone.

Culture of respect

Employee privacy is governed in Canada by the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act or PIPEDA. The Act is designed to protect employee information from being leaked outside the company, not from scrutiny by their managers.

Because a company owns the computers employees use, it’s within its rights to access the data, notes James Quin, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group, a London, Ont.-based analyst firm.

Quin compares this to ownership of other office equipment: “If I come in every weekend to run off 1,000 colour flyers because I hold rave parties, I can be fired for that.’

However, while staff activity monitoring in certain circumstances may be warranted, industry observers also say firms should be careful that they don’t step over the line.

Last year researchers at a symposium hosted by Canada’s privacy commissioner today called on legislators and employers to strengthen employee privacy guarantees and to anticipate the implications of emerging technologies that threaten privacy rights.

No matter how employers choose to watch employees, deploying the software in a way that is transparent is crucial, experts say.

This means informing employees they are being monitored is still important, even if not strictly required by law. If employees discover they are being watched surreptitiously, it can breed contempt.

“Be respectful of your team and explain why it’s being put to use,” says Adam Schran CEO of Philadelphia-based monitoring software vendor Ascentive LLC.

“You won’t want to use it in a culture of mistrust and disrespect.”

 Spying vs. reporting

The most basic monitoring software allows managers to directly spy on their employees.

Key-logging software simply records every key typed into a computer for later review. Other types of software work by outright blocking of Web sites and of e-mail with certain key words.

“These types of solutions are the most basic ones out there and they get a bad rap as being an invasion of employee privacy,” Quin says.

Schran says his company’s BeAware corporate edition attempts to move the focus away from micro-managing and blocking access.

Instead, he says, the program pushes information in the form of reports to a manager who can see the big picture of what’s happening on office desktops.

Ascentive’s significant customer base – around 300,000 clients in 55 countries – indicates that people like the philosophy behind the application, Schran says.

“You’re not keeping people from doing anything they want to do. You’re just preventing abuse.”

BeAware leaves obvious site blocking to a network’s firewalls and allows all activity to go forward. Then it sends activity reports to a manager. The idea is to prevent managers from spying on employees compulsively.

Still, basic spyware can be useful for small businesses concerned about worker productivity, Quin says. But larger businesses may want to stay away from packages offered by smaller companies that will end up being to complex to run on a large network.

“They’ll probably be better off with an identity management solution.”   

The tools will help to stop major red flags and prevent time-wasting. But don’t rely on them to stop employees set on wronging your company, warns Rick Dales, vice-president technical product management at Fortiva Inc. a provider of e-mail archiving services based in Toronto.

Such products, he says, would stop the most obvious problems, but are “not for catching people who are doing something nefarious.”  

Security and confidentiality

Employee monitoring isn’t yet common practice in Canada.

Usually it is done by companies who must practice it to appease some sort of regulatory body, say analysts. But firms that do put the software to work are described by Schran as a “small but rapidly growing minority.”

Most financial institutions practice it – 80 per cent of them according to Dales – because protecting information confidentiality is a requirement of the Investment Dealers Association.

Medical businesses may also be interested in maintaining confidentiality this way.

Sixty-three per cent of companies with e-mail surveillance say they’ve improved risk management as it relates to employee communications. 26 per cent say they’ve fired employees as a result, according to a November 2006 Fortiva survey.

Cost, time and contempt

But industry observers caution that the perks don’t come free of charge and buying a software kit isn’t going to wave a magic wand and make all your problems disappear.

Complex monitoring of employee activity requires man hours and money, they say.

Financial institutions often have a full-time employee dedicated to reading employee e-mails – even if they only review a 10 per cent sample of employee e-mail on average, according to Fortiva.

“When you live and breathe e-mail, you can get away with reading a smaller percentage,” Dales says. “Don’t let yourself fall behind and start playing catch-up… it’s about staying on top of e-mail and reading them the same day they were sent.”

It’s also important to not let the software dominate the employee’s work experience, says Info-Tech’s Quin.

“Forcing employees out of the office to do personal business could result in false sick days,” he says. “Allow people some flexibility and freedom, but establish thresholds that are considered acceptable.”

The BeAware software product has an option that allows employees a specified number of minutes a day when they’re not being watched. Then they can do some personal Web surfing on their lunch break.

The fact that employees no longer waste time on the Internet, doesn’t guarantee better productivity, he adds – noting that even before computers were placed in each cubicle, employees found no trouble wasting time by the water cooler.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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