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Is your boss spying on you?

Follow these tips and privacy shouldn't be an issue

By Kate Lorenz Editor

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From monitoring keystrokes to video surveillance to GPS satellite tracking, today's employers are keeping tabs on their employees.

According to a 2005 survey by the American Management Association (AMA), U.S. firms continue to record and review employee communications and activities on the job. This includes checking employee phone calls, e-mail messages, Internet connections and computer files.

Most observation takes place because of increased technology available to employees, such as e-mail and advanced online capabilities. Seventy-six percent of businesses monitor employee Web use and 55 percent keep and review e-mail messages.

But companies are not just watching employees online. More than 51 percent of companies said they participate in video surveillance for security purposes. Thirty-one percent monitor employees' outgoing phone numbers. And if you use a key card to access your job, you work for one of the 53 percent of companies that use them.

Some groups think these practices violate employees' privacy rights. Organizations such as Workplace Fairnessexternal link and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouseexternal link 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.

Of the companies that watch employee behavior 80 percent notify employees of this activity. Employers have established policies monitoring personal e-mail abuse (81 percent); personal instant messenger use (42 percent); operation of personal Web sites on company time (34 percent); personal postings on corporate blogs (23 percent); and operation of personal blogs on company time (20 percent).

And companies are increasingly putting their policies into action: 26 percent have fired workers for misusing the Internet and another 25 percent have terminated employees for e-mail misuse.

So if privacy -- and keeping your job -- concern you, follow these tips for work:

1. Review your company's handbook: Every company has a list of policies available to its employees. When you get a new job, your human resource department should make you aware of them. If you don't remember them, now's a good time to brush up on what's acceptable and not on the job.

2. Don't use company e-mail 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 e-mails that come and go. Is this fair? According to experts, if your e-mail system is owned by your employer, the company is allowed to review its contents.

3. 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 e-mail messages are meant to be private, pick up the phone and call the recipient instead of using e-mail.

4. 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.

5. Stay off sensitive Web sites while at work: Although you may think you are cruising the Net inconspicuously, everytime you visit a site you leave an electronic fingerprint. Your computer screen may also be in plain view of others who walk by your workspace. Visiting credit managment sites, managing your bank account online, or shopping for lingerie could have the whole office talking about what you're viewing on your monitor.

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 Web sites you've visited recently. Or worse, if you leave your e-mail 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 co-workers 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 co-workers and employer do not need to see and that don't need to go through the corporate mailroom.

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 co-worker who now occupied her empty desk found one of her old paychecks, opened it and shared the amount with others in the office.

9. 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.

10. Don't use a company-issued credit card for personal purchases: Many sales reps and executives receive corporate credit cards for business-incurred expenses. 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 handbook manual or ask your human resources department. Most businesses alert employees to the possibility that e-mail 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 e-mails 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.

© Copyright 2005. All rights reserved. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority
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