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Big Brother in the workplace

Big Brother in the workplace

What impact would ‘Big Brother’ style monitoring have on employee engagement and productivity levels?

Date: Tuesday 3rd May 2016

By Aisha Oakley, Head of HR Outsourcing

Over the last few months nearly every publication has featured an article about whether companies should monitor their employees’ internet usage at work.  This has all been in a bid to monitor staff productivity to ensure they are not ‘abusing’ the internet policy and getting on with what they’re supposed to be doing.  But with staff increasingly feeling more like they are being checked up on, what impact would this ‘Big Brother’ style monitoring actually have on engagement and productivity levels?

The spotlight on what employees are doing, where they are doing it and how much time they’re spending on doing it, was all brought to the fore when the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that private messages sent by staff on company software and web accounts during working hours could be read by the respective employer.  The court ruled that an employee was lawfully dismissed from his role after having used his Yahoo account for sending personal emails.  The employer had banned Yahoo accounts but the employee had given assurances that his Yahoo account was used for professional purposes only.  In this case, the employer was deemed right to have checked the employee’s Yahoo account to ensure it was being used for professional uses only.

In another article, News UK, owners of The Sun and The Times, recently announced that they would be installing a ‘tracking’ software app on their employees’ phones which would monitor their phone usage as well as which internet sites they were visiting for both personal and business usage.  This would then be reported back to News UK.  The reason for doing this is to try and cut down on phone bill costs where some employees have been using heavy data streaming sites.

This coincides with the recent launch of another app called Punchtime which monitors employees’ moves throughout the day.  This app gathers information on how much time an employee spends where and what they are doing.* 

This prompts the question: how far is too far?  Is this leading organisations into a culture of mistrust?  Where is the line between an employee checking the internet casually and them abusing the privilege given?

In many cases the answer has been to put a ‘blanket’ ban on internet usage across the business.  By automatically taking this privilege away, organisations imply that they do not trust their staff and are inherently building a culture where the employee feels like they are unable to do anything without someone looking over their shoulder.  This can have the opposite effect intended and be highly demotivating, leading to decreased productivity levels.  By cutting your employees a little slack and allowing them to browse the internet at lunchtime, they won’t feel the need to abuse the trust you have put in them.

Until they do something to prove you otherwise, we would suggest avoiding the blanket ‘no internet’ approach and instead try following a few of these tips:

  1. Set some ground rules: put together policies on internet and email usage explaining what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour during working hours.  Also ensure you detail within those policies what you as an employer will have access to for example, employees’ work emails can be accessed and monitored by senior management/line managers.
  2. Allowing a little slack when it comes to internet browsing – giving your employees a little bit of freedom to browse the internet will help them to feel trusted by you without them feeling as if you are constantly looking over their shoulder.  Obviously if employees are starting to abuse that by spending hours on social media then the issue needs to be addressed.
  3. Nip bad behaviour in the bud straight away – if you see an employee abusing the privilege then bring this up straight away, don’t let this manifest or catch on so that other employees are aware of what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour.  Consistency of messaging is key.
  4. Do not go overboard – Keep in mind that employees who work long hours may have no choice but to pay a bill online during the day.  They will be more likely to thank you in the long run for being flexible with them which will encourage them not to abuse the internet policy and feel more engaged with your business.

Whichever way you look at it there are arguments for and against.  There has to be a balance between what is acceptable behaviour which is not ultimately costing the business revenue because staff are abusing the privilege.  At the same time however, being too harsh can have a negative impact on engagement and productivity.  Being clear and upfront about what you as a business owner expect should help to encourage positive behaviour of employees while helping to maintain engagement and motivation without them feeling like Big Brother is watching them.

If you’d like some advice about how you deliver this message to staff or need help drafting policies then we can help.  Our specialist HR consultants work onsite with you to get to know your organisation, seamlessly integrating with your people.  So get in touch to see how we can help you 0207 977 9200 or

*Source: Executive Grapevine online, April 2016,