WMU News

Ethical implications of e-mail monitoring are complex

Oct. 5, 2001

by Norman W. Hawker

Recent news stories indicate that at least one third of employers monitor their employees' Web browsing and e-mail. As the price for the monitoring software continues to decline, employer monitoring will almost certainly increase. For the moment, this conduct is legal. But is it ethical?

Students often raise this question in my MBA course on corporate strategy and business ethics. We try to work out the answer by looking at three basic concepts: utility (do the benefits exceed the cost?), rights (are the legal and other rights respected?) and justice (are the costs and benefits distributed in a fair manner?). Answering yes to all three questions suggests ethical conduct, and a uniformly negative finding suggests unethical conduct. The difficult issues, of course, provoke mixed findings.

Ethicists generally agree that employers may monitor employees. It costs very little, and monitoring may increase productivity, thwart industrial espionage and reduce exposure to sexual harassment liability. The employer bears both the cost and the burdens, satisfying the test of justice. The issue of rights pits employee expectations of privacy against employers' legitimate interests, but few would argue that employers should under no circumstance monitor employees.

However, the truly sticky ethical issues involve what employers may monitor for and whether employees deserve notice. Here, the issue of rights becomes problematic.

An employer rarely has a legal duty to notify employees that their Internet use is monitored. But ethically, we cannot dismiss the employees' privacy rights. Employees are human beings, and businesses cannot ethically treat them as resources in the same category as capital, inventory or equipment.

So, do employees have an expectation of privacy at work? Reasonable minds can and do differ on this question. Given the importance of privacy and employment to all individuals in Western society, however, it seems logical to assume that employees may reasonable expect a measure of privacy at work.

Employers have rights too, of course, but it is difficult to identify what employer rights are protected by secret monitoring. Entrapment and surprise can hardly be ethical entitlements. In short, the logical ethical analysis suggests an employer should notify its employees if it intends to monitor their Internet usage.

What about indiscriminate monitoring? Note that the question is not whether employers may continuously monitor, but rather what it is ethical to look for. Again, we're inevitably drawn into the debate over how much privacy employees may reasonably expect at work. Should personal Internet research on medical issues be monitored? Online shopping during work hours? How about an e-mail that contains a statement such as "my boss is stupid?"

The employer's rights must again be used to set appropriate boundaries. In general, ethicists agree that monitoring for indications of sexual harassment, corporate espionage or other damaging behavior is acceptable. However, indiscriminate scanning for information that does not truly affect the employer's rights is not.

In short, while the law currently allows Internet and e-mail monitoring, ethical considerations also limit its scope. With thoughtful review, employers may use monitoring to protect their businesses without infringing on the rights of their employees.

Dr. Norman W. Hawker is an associate professor of finance and commercial law at Western Michigan University and a former assistant attorney general for Michigan. He teaches courses in social responsibility and ethics in WMU's Haworth College of Business. This column was originally published in the Aug. 15 issue of MiBizSouthwest and is reprinted in WMU News with their permission. The article is part of a monthly MiBiz series featuring professors from the WMU Haworth College of Business.

Media contact: Jessica English, 616 387-8400, jessica.english@wmich.edu

Office of University Relations
Western Michigan University
1903 W Michigan Ave
Kalamazoo MI 49008-5433 USA
616 387-8400