Written by Katie Bishop
The Covid-19 pandemic has had the majority of us working remotely, but what happens when your boss wants to keep up with what you’re doing behind the scenes? We look into what they can (and should) do to monitor your workload, and what you can do about it.
For many of us, the move to the home office has been a welcome opportunity to work without overbearing bosses breathing down our neck. Being able to take tea breaks from the comfort of our own sofa or blast out our favourite Spotify playlist during a particularly boring task has eased the transition into remote working. But some employers are concerned that we might be being a little bit too liberal with that lunch break Loose Women binge.
Demand for software that enables employers to keep tabs on their staff has boomed this year. From always-on video services like Sneek to keystroke monitoring technology, ways of making sure that staff really are working from their home offices have become an unlikely lockdown accessory.
So is your boss really allowed to spy on you when you’re working from home? And what should you do if they are? Stylist.co.uk asked some experts to find out.
Is it legal for my boss to spy on me?
Spyware technology may seem sneaky, but that doesn’t stop it being permissible in UK law.
“Simply put, it is legal for your boss to track your work,” says Boma Adoki, an employment expert at Surrey-based law firm Stevens & Bolton LLP. “However, your boss does not have free rein to track staff as they please. Employee monitoring is a complex area, and there are various legal rules that deal with monitoring staff.”
Employees are entitled to a right to privacy, and employers also owe an implied duty of trust to their staff. This means that it can be more difficult for bosses to justify the use of invasive forms of monitoring such as keystroke and screen monitoring. Yet although these forms of surveillance are subject to more stringent rules, they are generally still allowed.
Can my boss see my personal messages if I use a desktop app?
What your boss is able to see depends on the type of surveillance carried out. Even basic employee monitoring software allows employees to find out what websites you have been browsing or the content of emails sent from your work address, so it is good practice to exercise caution when sending or accessing personal information on a work device.
More advanced surveillance technology includes features such as taking screenshots every few minutes, which are then sent directly to curious bosses. This spyware is particularly invasive and means that your employer can see what you send even via desktop apps for personal messaging services.
Does my boss have to tell me if they’re using spyware?
Although it is good practice for your boss to tell you if they are tracking your work, they are not obliged to do so. Most companies will have an internal privacy notice that informs employees of how their personal data is being processed, where this is collected from, and what the purpose of processing is – however on some occasions the information collected through monitoring may not qualify as personal data.
“Although bosses should tell you if they are using spyware technology, they do not have to obtain your consent to do so,” Adoki explains. “Covert monitoring, whilst ethically questionable, is not necessarily unlawful. However, it is much more difficult for employers to justify.”
Employees can challenge their bosses if they discover that they have been monitored without their knowledge, or if the reason for monitoring hasn’t been made clear to them. Kate Palmer, a HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, believes that transparency is crucial for both employers and employees:
“Ideally, the employee will have been informed of the types of monitoring they are subject to when they started employment or when a new form of monitoring is implemented,” she says. “If an employer has identified a series of employee breaches, such as using the internet for shopping after they have been expressly told not to, or scrolling through their phone rather than answering customer calls, then monitoring them may be a proportionate way of quickly identifying further breaches. But the clearer the explanation for the use of monitoring, the better it is for everyone involved.”
What should I do if I think that my boss is spying on me?
If you suspect that your boss is using surveillance technology then it’s always best to be cautious when it comes to private conversations or personal data. If reasons have not been clearly explained, then you may also be able to challenge your employer.
“If your boss has been using spyware without your express consent or on a covert basis then you may wish to raise your concerns informally first to see if they can be addressed,” says Adoki. “If not, then you can submit a grievance in relation to the monitoring. Your employer should then deal with this in accordance with their own grievance procedure.”
Should you decide to speak to your boss about surveillance technology you must be clear about your reasons for wanting to understand whether spyware is being used, emphasising the importance of a trusting relationship and right to privacy. If you suspect that you are being singled out for monitoring it is crucial that your employer is clear and upfront with you, and you may wish to seek legal advice if you believe that you are being discriminated against on the basis of a protected characteristic.
I know that my boss is monitoring me – how can I handle this situation?
If your boss has explained their reasons for monitoring your screen, keystrokes or productivity then there will be limited space to push back on them. But for many employees, the thought of someone tracking their every email might still feel discomforting. Being constantly monitored can impact wellbeing and morale, and if surveillance technology is having a negative impact on your employer/employee relationship and work life then you might feel that it is worth raising.
“Any disgruntlement should initially be dealt with by speaking with the employer,” says Palmer. “This allows both parties to explain their position. Hearing why the monitoring has been put in place may help the employee to understand that it is a proportionate measure to assist with an existing problem.
“Similarly, the employer may gain an understanding of a different, less intrusive but equally useful way of handling any issues that have led to the implementation of monitoring.”
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