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Companies controlling their employees – that’s always tricky

There have been several cases where the extensive surveillance of employees, especially in the retail sectors, has been discovered and in turn heavily criticised by the public. Most of the time, that harsh reaction to those cases are justified because the employers or leading employees obviously went too far. On one hand, it is understandable that leading employees should be able to control the employees‘ work, which the employer pays for. On the other hand, there are limits, some of them legal ones.


It is a fine line to walk also because most of the time it’s done subtly and superiors usually try to hide activities which could make people feel spied on. Usually, in the long term at least, that does not work, though. Beside the obvious methods of installing cameras and constantly hovering over people’s shoulders, there are other ways to gather the sought after information. Not all of them are legal.


Of course, every employee is required to perform the duties laid out in his work contract during the specified work hours. That performance must be measurable in some way. In some industries, that is easy. Targets of numbers of pieces produced or the various stages of progress in the building business, those can be checked. Office work, maybe even paired with flexible work hours make this a lot more difficult. What is usually used in these settings are projects and milestones with deadlines within those projects. That method has its limit, too, though. It’s for example possible for one team member to skilfully avoid work and let the others do it, while the superior will only see the end result without being able to gauge the performance of individual team members. At the same time, a superior must be able to catch and react to deliberate actions like the betrayal of secret or embezzlement or theft.


It’s a matter of the employees‘ personal rights versus the legitimate concerns of employers. One example here is the monitoring of the business premises. Over the last several years, a number of court rulings have been established concerning this, providing a guideline for both sides.


Taking a supermarket for an example; In the salesroom itself and the storage area, the employers‘ interest in preventing or at least discovering theft done by customers or employees or suppliers. In this case, though, it is required that there are clearly visible signs, informing anyone present about the surveillance. The customers, too, have personal rights, after all. When it comes to rooms only accessible by employees, like break rooms or bath rooms, the focus clearly shifts toward employees‘ rights. This principle can also be applied to office areas. The entrance area or a vault are fair game for surveillance, the back-office, however, is not.


Another thing the employer should take into account is the psychological effect that constant surveillance will have on employees. If they become intimidates it is quite possible that the effectiveness of their work suffers. A healthy work environment is key to productivity, and as such, not everything that is permitted by the law is also worthwhile.


Another issue, which has become rather large in the last ten years, is the use of the internet on company computers for private purposes. In the beginning, companies were rather strict by either completely banning the private use in work contract or blocking large numbers of popular websites from the network. More and more, though, companies are changing their stance on the matter, and allowing free use of the internet as long as work performance doesn’t suffer, and of course no illegal, pornographic and other such sites are visited. By now, there is software available, that will block sites by the categories mentioned.


The reason for the change is that companies realized that a quick email or birthday greetings on networks like facebook do not really compromise work performance. However, excessive use like long chats, and file downloads can still lead to disciplinary steps up to the cancellation of the work contract. This field still sport many gray areas in terms of what is allowed and what not. As a rule of thumb, the suspicion for fraud or theft, the lower rank the individual employee’s personal right for privacy. For example, key loggers, normally forbidden could be used if there is reason to believe a certain employee is using the work computer for unsavoury purposes. If there is a workers‘ council, they should be contacted first to openly discuss the matter. Most of the time the issue can be cleared up in a meeting. Team leaders and supervisors are called to deal with the matter directly and objectively, instead of calling for expensive surveillance technology and its questionable legal status.


One of the common topic where suspicion arises again and again is sick leave. Some team leaders turn detective to observe an employee in their private life and gather material for a possible lay off. In extreme cases, that might even be a way to go. Court tend to be very strict in their decision of what constitutes a grave breach of contract, though. Hence, it is usually better to get the employee’s health insurance provider involved. That’s not only cheaper but also shift much of the responsibility away from the employer. This is the way laid out by the law to check whether a person is fit for work or not. Is the person fit for work, and should the evidence support the idea that the person is adding a few extra vacation days, so to speak, the employers and the health care provider can take legal steps against them, and possibly even a doctor’s certificate.


Overall, it is advisable to first check the legal situation and talk to the employees before setting up any kind of surveillance system.


Employees who think they are being watched should also first talk to their superiors, or the work council to find out the reasons for this step.


Legal steps should always be the last resort.

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Herr Daniel Stock d.stock(@)top-jobs-europe.de