Computer Ethics In The Workplace Information Technology Essay

In this current age of technology, running any type of business without the help of computers, internet, cell phones and so on would be considered crazy. It is, therefore, a requirement that employees have some sort of computer knowledge and/or skills. Employees can spend entire days behind a computer. The very technology that has helped to make daily work responsibilities easier and quicker has also created the ability to take care of personal commitments without ever leaving your desk. Depending on the job or employer, it can be confusing as to what is acceptable for the employee’s personal time.

So many things can be taken care of on a computer, but what is appropriate to do at work? Considering the variety of activity that an employee can do versus the privacy they are risking in using the company computer, is it worth it? The access to unlimited information through the internet allows a person to look up answers to personal situations as they come to mind instead of waiting until later when not on company time. This can be said for checking the news, the markets, your bank account, or even sending personal emails not to mention on-line shopping, downloading music. This list is endless. The ethical problem that arises is should the employee be allowed to do all these things using the companies computer and in essence on the company’s time.

The purpose of this paper is to take a look at this situation from both the employee’s and the employer’s perspective. The advances in technology continue to cloud the lines between personal and professional life in that for many people work does not end just because you leave the office. The ability to stay connected through cell phones and pagers brings work home with you as well as home coming to work, too. Also many people put in more than the expected 40 hour work weeks. There will always be the exceptions to the rules so we will try to keep our focus on the more standardized jobs.

One of the biggest controversies created with internet and e-mail is employee monitoring. Employee monitoring is the act of watching and monitoring employees’ actions during working hours using employer equipment/property (Raposa & Mujtaba, 2003) (Mujtaba). Most (75 percent) medium and large companies use technology to monitor employees’ email and internet activities (George and Jones, 2003). Reasons cited for monitoring include: potential legal liability (68%), security concerns (60%), and employee productivity concerns (45%) (Cox, Goette, Young 58). Employee monitoring also raises questions concerning employee privacy.

The Case for Employee Monitoring

Those in favor of employee or workplace monitoring see a need to combat what is called cyberloafing. “Cyberloafing” is a voluntary act of employees using company Internet during office hours to surf non-job related web sites for personal purposes and to check personal email (Grodzinsky, Gumbus). “The International Data Corp. estimated that 30% to 40% of employee Internet use isn’t work related. And according to Nielson/NetRatings, 92% of online stock trading occurs from the workplace during work hours and 46% of online holiday shopping takes place at work” [Schweitzer, 2004] (Grodzinsky, Gumbus). All of this cyberloafing causes great losses to a company in lost production due to what could be considered employee theft. Blocking certain websites or even limiting employee internet access can help to deter

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some of this activity.

Beyond worry about lost productivity, employers have legitimate concerns about the use of email in thefts of proprietary information, which, according to the “Handbook on White Collar Crime,” account for more than $2 billion in losses a year (Schulman). Employers can use programs to search emails for suspect word strings or they can simply have the employee’s hard drive searched and the messages read to monitor such situations. Companies have to have a level of security in order to protect sensitive company information and trade secrets along with private customer, employee and financial data.

Employers can be held liable for the atmosphere in the workplace. In Blakey v Continental Airlines (2000) the court ruled that an employer had a duty to remedy electronic harassment because it had received notice that the employees were posting defamatory and harassing messages on the company’s bulletin board (Cox, Goette, Young 59). Companies can be held liable for the misuse of IT resources as well, such as the circulation of inappropriate emails. Female employees sued Chevron alleging it allowed its internal email system to be used to transmit sexually offensive messages. The company settled when a copy of the email was located on its email server, paying more than $2.2 million in damages (Soewita and Kleiner, 2000) (Cox, Goette, Young 59).

The Case Against Employee Monitoring

Internet use and personal email could be considered the same as personal phone use on the job. A certain amount of personal use is to be expected. For many there is little difference in brief stints on the internet and sending a personal email from taking a cigarette break or sitting in the break room to read the paper. It is when the time spent doing these things gets out of hand that there becomes an issue. If employees are doing their work and not giving reasons for concern, monitoring should only be used as needed.

Even though companies will use employee monitoring for the reason of improving productivity, the opposite may actually be the case. Employee monitoring could be seen as mistrust and could cause a decrease in productivity or even increase the turnover rates within the company. It has also been argued that employee monitoring causes a loss in production because you have people watching other people instead of working like everyone else. Some believe that you cannot run a business without some sort of community and trust. “In order for a community to exist there must be some degree of shared beliefs, values and goals among members who share a common vision and who desire to perpetuate it through the socialization of new members” [Grodzinsky and Tavani, 2004] (Grodzinsky, Gumbus).

Trust and privacy are probably the biggest reasons given against employee monitoring. Many companies that use some sort of surveillance show workplaces that are dysfunctional. The so-called community is missing the most important part, which is trust. According to Rita C. Manning in the Journal of Business Ethics, if employers create trust, employee behavior “will conform to certain norms, not as a result of being watched, but as a result of the care and respect which are part of the communal fabric” (Schulman). Telling employees from the start what is expected of them and what the company policy is with everyone being accountable to each other builds a strong sense of community and trust.

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One aspect of employee monitoring that is not mentioned very often is fairness. The higher ups in a company are generally not the ones who are being monitored. It is usually the line workers or production people. That seems to be true when it comes to key-stroke monitoring, a form of electronic monitoring that measures the speed of data entry. According to an article in Public Personnel Management, “The majority of employees being electronically monitored are women in low-paying clerical positions” (Schulman).

Legislation and Litigation

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (EPCA) of 1986 was one of the first and most significant pieces of legislation passed that relates to electronic communication and privacy. It prohibits the interception and disclosure of wire, oral and electronic communications. It also protects stored wire, transactional and electronic communications from being disclosed without consent (Cox, Goette, Young 58). Of course there are three exceptions that give employers the means to bypass personal privacy rights of employees.

1) The “business exception” gives the employer the right to intercept communication, if it is done during the course of business on a qualified device. 2) The “consent” exception says that an employer can monitor the communication as long as they have the consent of at least one of the individuals in that communication. 3) The “service provider” exception says that an employer who provides a wire or electronic communications service (e.g., email, voicemail) may retrieve information on that persons system to protect the employer’s property rights (Cox, Goette, Young 58).

With the battle of employee monitoring versus the employee’s right to privacy, the EPCA is the basis upon which legal cases on this topic are judged. Two cases concerning privacy and the workplace, Smyth v The Pillsbury Company and Bourke v Nissan Motor Corporation, were both decided in favor of the employer over the “reasonable expectation of privacy” of the employee. Both cases had to do with inappropriate emails being sent. In the first case, Smyth sent emails to a supervisor under the impression that the emails were confidential. The second case, though, was caught by accident through an email training session. Bourke’s email was just picked at random during the training session, but the content caught the trainer’s attention and his emails were more closely scrutinized. In both cases, the employees lost their jobs (Cox, Goette, Young 58-59). Even though both of these cases had the same result, courts must decide on a case-by-case basis whether an employee has a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Analyzing the Ethicality of Both Sides

The stakeholders in employee monitoring are the employees, employers and ultimately the customers. Using the Utilitarian theory of ethics, which is consequence based, we can see that the employer would gain the most benefit from employee monitoring since they are the ones who stand to lose the most by making sure employees are doing the work they are supposed to be doing, not stealing or sharing confidential information and maintaining an appropriate work environment for all. The employees on the other hand could possibly feel they are not trusted and are unappreciated for the value they bring to the company by having someone always looking over their shoulder.

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Let’s take a look at this situation using the Social Contract Theory. We all have a right to privacy but as employees the idea of complete privacy is unrealistic in that you are now working for someone else and using their equipment and services. The employer is now not only responsible for themselves but you and everyone else who is working for them. Employers have the responsibility to run the company and make it a place that is safe for everyone, employees, management and customers. The duty of the employer to everyone affected by the company outweighs the right to privacy of the employee.

The choice of the employee to act ethically or unethically would be connected to Kant’s Categorical Imperative theory. This theory is the notion that every person should act on only those principles that he or she, as a rational person, would prescribe as universal laws to be applied to the whole of mankind (Mutjaba). If every employee came to work and spent all their time at work actually working, then there would be no problem. Even as rational persons, not everyone agrees on what is right and acceptable. Some employees feel justified in their actions of surfing the web or sending personal emails, cyberloafing, due to being unhappy or unfulfilled in their job. They see it as a type of compensation for what they see as lacking in other areas. So Kant’s theory of what’s good for one being good for all can vary greatly from one person to the next.

What Does the Future Hold?

The best recommendations have been for each company to find that middle ground where the employee is given some level of privacy at work while the employer still maintains the ability to monitor as needed. Some monitoring is obviously necessary, but is not a substitute for voluntary, responsible behavior by employees (Cox, Goette, Young 63). With the active busy lives people lead these days, a certain amount of personal internet time should be allowed as well whether it is intermittent throughout the day or just set times during the day.

A computer use policy is crucial to any business. Employees should be given training and reminded of the policy on a yearly basis. The policy should apply to everyone in all levels of the company. Employees should be made aware of the kind of monitoring the company does and what consequences they will face for breaking the rules. The employee should know everything up front and can therefore decide for themselves if this is the right place for them. As with any ethical situation, there needs to be the mutual respect for one another that help to lead to a mutual agreement in the best interests of all involved. There should be no hidden agendas.

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