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Being monitored at work

Employers may wish to monitor their workplace for various reasons, the Data Protection Act doesn't prevent employers from monitoring workers, but employers should remember workers are entitled to some privacy at work. Employers must tell employees about any monitoring arrangements and the reason for it.

Key points

  • Employers should have written policies and procedures in place regarding monitoring at work.
  • Monitoring shouldn't be excessive and should be justified.
  • Staff should be told what information will be recorded and how long it will be kept.
  • If employers monitor workers by collecting or using information the Data Protection Act will apply.
  • Information collected through monitoring should be kept secure.

Monitoring in the workplace can occur for a variety of reasons; it can be used to safeguard employees, for example to ensure workers aren't at risk from unsafe working practices. In some sectors employers may have a legal or regulatory need to carry out some monitoring. The information gathered through monitoring should only be used for the purpose it was carried out for, unless it leads to the discovery of other things such as a breach of health and safety.

Employers may monitor staff at work in various ways, this can include:

  • CCTV
  • looking at use of email or website visits
  • listening in on telephone calls
  • bag searches
  • email and web monitoring.

Although employers don't have to allow workers the use of phone, email or internet for personal use, many employers will allow some access as long as it doesn't interfere with their work. If employers do monitor this use the workers should be clearly informed and given the reason why it will be carried out.

Employers should have procedures in place setting out what is and isn't allowed, some websites may be banned or marked as at risk. Employers should tell workers:

  • if they are being monitored
  • what counts as a reasonable amount of personal emails and phone calls
  • if personal calls and e mails are not allowed.

These procedures should be made clear and understood by all workers. If a worker does not comply with the policy and procedures they may be liable to disciplinary action.

CCTV monitoring

CCTV monitoring can be used in the workplace for a number of reasons, however, if CCTV is installed the employer should make sure the employees are aware it, this is usually done by displaying signs to say where the locations of the cameras are. Workers should also be given the reason for the monitoring.

Signs should:

  • be clear, visible and readable
  • contain details of the purpose of the surveillance and who to contact about the scheme
  • include contact details such as website address, telephone number or e mail address.

Under the Data Protection Act if the employer gives a reason for the cameras for example to prevent theft, the employer cannot then use the footage for another reason such as recording entry and exit of workers from the workplace.

Further information is available from the Information Commissioner's Office guidance In the picture: A data protection code of practice for surveillance cameras and personal information [PDF, 312kb]

Bag searches

If employers intend to carry out bag searches a workplace policy must be in place that informs employees that bags and purses will be subject to searches. Employers must have a legitimate work-related reason for carrying out searches.

Covert monitoring

It's very rare that employers would need to carry out monitoring in secret without the staff being told they are being monitored. Employers must have a genuine reason to carry out covert monitoring such as criminal activities or malpractice. Monitoring must be obtained as quickly as possible, and only as part of a specific investigation. The monitoring must stop when the investigation has finished.