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Is Your Boss Spying On You?

12 Tips for Maintaining Your Privacy at Work
Kate Lorenz, Editor

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From key card technology that provides access to the office parking garage to computer systems that monitor incoming and outgoing phone calls, today's employers are keeping tabs on their employees.


     According to a 2001 survey by the American Management Association (AMA), more than 75 percent of U.S. firms record and review employee communications and activities on the job. This includes monitoring employee phone calls, email messages, Internet connections and computer files. Most monitoring takes place because of increased technology available to employees, such as email and advanced online capabilities. In fact, this percentage has doubled since the AMA first conducted the survey in 1997.


     But companies are not just watching employees online. More than 37 percent of companies said they participate in video surveillance for security purposes and 7.8 percent store and review employee voicemail messages. Forty-three percent monitor employees' telephone use, including time spent on the phone and which numbers have been called.


     Some groups think these practices violate employees' privacy rights. Organizations such as Workplace Fairness ( and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse ( are working to bring about legislation that protects employees' rights to privacy in the workplace. Many companies, however, feel that since the equipment is company owned and operated ,employees must adhere to company policies regarding personal use of technology.


     So if privacy is a concern for you, follow these tips for maintaining your privacy while at work:


     1. Don't use company email for private messages. Although it may be tempting to forward the latest joke or urban legend to your colleagues, resist the urge. Someone in your organization - usually the network administrator - is watching all of the emails that come and go. Is this fair? According to experts, if your email system is owned by your employer, the company is allowed to review its contents.


     2. Always assume your messages will be shared with others. It's all too easy for the recipient to hit "forward" rather than "reply" and send your message on to others. If the contents of your email messages are meant to be private, pick up the phone and call the recipient instead of using email.


     3. Keep your passwords private. If you don't want others to have access to your computer while you're out of the office, don't share your passwords. Keep them in a secure place where only you can find them.


     4. Stay off sensitive websites while at work. Although you may think you are cruising the net inconspicuously, every time you visit a site you leave an electronic fingerprint. Your computer screen may also be in plain view of others who walk by your office or cube. Visiting credit management sites, managing your bank account online, or shopping for lingerie could have the whole office talking if you're not monitoring your monitor.


     5. Disable the "cookies" in your system. Cookies are bits of text that a website stores in your computer, allowing the site to recognize you the next time you visit.


     6. Turn off your computer. When you step away from your desk, turn off your computer. Anyone can click on your navigation bar to view the websites you've visited recently. Or worse, if you leave your email open, a passerby could read your mail or even send a message under your account.


     7. Pay your bills at home. If you don't want your coworkers to know how much you owe on your credit cards or the size of your mortgage, keep your bills at home. These are private documents that your coworkers and employer do not need to see and that don't need to go through the corporate mail room.


     8. Keep your paycheck away from wandering eyes. Put your paycheck in your pocket or purse as soon as you get it. Given the popularity of direct deposit these days, most people don't give payday a second thought. That can be a problem when paychecks are left lying around. Consider Kathy, an account manager at a national travel company. She recently moved to another cubicle and the coworker who now occupied her empty desk found one of her old paychecks, opened it and shared the amount with others in the office.


     9. Lock your drawers, take the key. If you don't want coworkers or supervisors sifting through your desk, keep it locked. Many an office surveillance camera has captured employees after work hours sifting through others' drawers.


     10. Watch what you say and to whom. It's no secret that office gossip travels faster than the Concorde. If you want to avoid rumors about yourself, keep quiet about your private life.


     11. Report to work on time. According to one office administration manager in Chicago, "If your company has a security key card system that you use to gain access to your building, management knows what time you came into the building and reported for work. When needed, they can use these reports to implicate tardy employees." Surveillance cameras can also track employees' whereabouts and the time of their arrival and departure.


     12. Don't use a company-issued credit card for personal purchases. Many sales reps and executives receive corporate credit cards. If you don't want the accounting department to know what size undies you wear, don't shop for clothing and other personal items with the company card.


     If you are concerned about privacy and monitoring practices at your company, re-read your company policies manual or ask your human resources department. Most businesses alert employees to the possibility that email messages or online activities may be tracked. Keep in mind that your purpose at work is to - well - work and realize that it's better to be safe than sorry. If you keep your personal emails to a minimum or avoid them altogether, make as few personal phone calls as possible and stay off the Internet, privacy shouldn't be an issue for you.

Last Updated: 24/09/2007 - 3:50 PM

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