The Right Way To Spy On Employees

Last Updated Mar 28, 2008 7:54 AM EDT

The Right Way To Spy On EmployeesBe honest. We're you really surprised at the revelations that State Department employees took clandestine peeks at the presidential candidate's passport files?

I wasn't. I know of a department store credit office where the night shift routinely passes the time by pulling up records of famous customers. It's all there: credit history, addresses and phone numbers, purchase patterns. Nothing malicious on the part of the bored bureaucrats, you understand. Just curiosity, fueled by accessibility.

And of course its wrong, punishable by firing, as some Staties found out.

Harvard Business blogger Scott Berinato doesn't think any of this is new, either. But he provides an interesting take on it. He asks, should employers snoop on their employees to ensure the employees aren't snooping on someone else?

Some small portion of every workforce will exploit opportunities to snoop. Surveillance of their behavior, in some form, is inevitable in the modern workplace. The key to effective monitoring is to match the amount of surveillance to the risk posed by the snooping. Accessing private medical records is a federal offense -- that probably requires deeper and more regular monitoring than, say, Web surfing.
Monitoring raises all kinds of issues in the workplace. Is there a right way to do it? Read the blog for best practices that basically involve honesty, transparency about what is being monitored, and visible enforcement against the privacy invaders.

(Spy image by decor8, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.