From email monitoring to video surveillance, U.S. employers are increasingly adopting sophisticated technology solutions in the belief that they will boost productivity and protect resources.
A new survey of 526 U.S. companies found that two-thirds now use software to block connections to websites deemed to be inappropriate - a 27 per cent increase since 2001 – while three-quarters (76 per cent) monitor workers' web usage.
And according to the 2005 Electronic Monitoring & Surveillance Survey from American Management Association (AMA) and The ePolicy Institute, a quarter of firms have fired workers for misusing the Internet and for email misuse, while six per cent have even fired workers for misusing office telephones.
Workplace monitoring takes various forms, the survey found, with more than a third (36 per cent) of employers tracking content, keystrokes and time spent at the keyboard.
Another half store and review employees' computer files, while 55 per cent retain and review their employee's email messages.
The number of employers who monitor the amount of time employees spend on the phone and track the numbers called has also leapt to 51 per cent, up from only 9 per cent in 2001. Meanwhile 19 per cent tape the calls of employees in selected job categories, and three per cent record and review every word their employees say on the phone.
However most employers are careful to inform employees when they are being watched, with almost nine out of 10 of firms which monitor web usage letting their employees know that their surfing habits are being tracked.
Yet while more than eight out of 10 employers have established policies governing personal email and Internet use, the explosion in self-publishing and blogging seems to have left many organisations behind.
Only a third have policies about the operation of personal web sites on company time, fewer than a quarter (23 per cent) rule on personal postings on corporate blogs while only one in five have rules about personal blogs.
According to Nancy Flynn, executive director of The ePolicy Institute, U.S. employers have been spurred on in their surveillance efforts by the fact that one in five employers has had email subpoenaed by courts and regulators and another 13 per cent have battled workplace lawsuits triggered by employee email.
"Concern over litigation and the role electronic evidence plays in lawsuits and regulatory investigations has spurred more employers to implement electronic technology policies," she said.
"Workers' email, IM, blog and Internet content creates written business records that are the electronic equivalent of DNA evidence."
More than half of the companies surveyed use video monitoring to counter theft, violence and sabotage. But the number of companies that use video surveillance to track employees' on-the-job performance has also increased, with one in ten videotaping selected job categories and six per cent videotaping all employees.
The survey also showed that 15 per cent of employers were even prepared to videotape workers without notifying them of the practice.
While the legality of this type of covert monitoring remains something of a legal grey area in the U.S, in Europe falls foul of Article 8 of the European Human Rights Act enshrining respect for private and family life and personal correspondence
Meanwhile, the Australian state of New South Wales earlier this month introduced legislation making covert surveillance by employers a criminal offence unless they can prove they had reasonable suspicion of wrong doing by an employee.
Surveillance also has its flip side. Studies have shown that monitored workers suffered more work dissatisfaction, depression, extreme anxiety, exhaustion, strain injuries and neck problems than unmonitored workers.
A recent report from the London School of Economics also argued that the sort of scrutiny and micromanagement that results from supply chain technologies developed for monitoring goods being applied to individuals undermines the productivity benefits of the technology-driven economy.
In short, while covert monitoring might assuage management paranoia, it also leads to people spending a lot of time proving to their bosses that they are working, instead of getting on with actually working.
But it appears that as far as most U.S. employers are concerned, the use of what Nancy Flynn terms "technology tools to battle people problems" is only going to increase as the risks – perceived or actual - of litigation, security breaches and other electronic disasters grow ever larger.