sealPurdue News

March 1996

As workplace surveillance increases, communication declines

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- As the use of computers in the workplace skyrockets, so does the opportunity for secret surveillance of employees by their bosses.

Such surveillance can hinder workplace communication and the flow of information, says a Purdue University communications expert. And even if employees aren't being secretly monitored, they may suspect that they are and behave accordingly.

Workplace surveillance is on the rise, says Carl Botan, associate professor of communication, and it has gone beyond video cameras and listening in on phone calls. He says the growth of surveillance is partly due to the widespread use of computer technology. "If your computer at work is networked to others, or if you have electronic mail, you can be, and possibly are being, surveilled today," Botan says. He says retail workers and grocery clerks can have their lag times and time spent with customers all tracked through the electronic cash registers they operate.

Botan says the rapid growth in workplace surveillance makes it difficult to accurately estimate how many people are affected by it. "One estimate is that at the beginning of this decade, 20 million Americans were subject to electronic monitoring through their computers," Botan says. "Projections are that by the end of this century, up to 40 million workers will be using computers or video display terminals in their jobs and therefore be vulnerable to surveillance.

"Employees who believe they are being secretly surveilled at work are less likely to feel that they have the opportunity to communicate with their peers -- even if they need to get information to perform their jobs. They often act as if they are isolated in their own little cells, unable to reach out to even those sitting next to them." Botan says employees in these situations may be afraid that only parts of their conversations will be picked up and their attempts to communicate with fellow employees will be misunderstood.

"A 1993 survey reported in the Washington Post found that 21 percent of top corporate managers indicated that they had 'engaged in searches of employee computer files, voice mail or other networking communications,'" Botan says. "In another study, 60 percent of people in charge of computer operations said they didn't see anything wrong with bosses checking e-mail or auditing personal files."

Botan surveyed members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers of New Jersey about their attitudes about on-the-job surveillance. "Many of these people worked in communications-related industries -- telephone installers, operators, etc. Ironically, even though their jobs required a great deal of communication, the more these employees felt that they were under surveillance, the less likely they were to communicate with others -- be it supervisors or fellow employees," Botan says.

Seventy percent of the 467 workers who responded reported that felt they were under surveillance on the job at least part of the time. "In some workplaces, companies admit they surveil employees on occasion," Botan says. "But because surveillance can be invisible, there is often this paranoia employees feel, so that whether a company admits it or not, workers can suspect surveillance and thus behave as though they are being monitored."

Another irony is that technology for improving information exchange is often the vehicle for monitoring employees, Botan says. "Electronic surveillance reduces or eliminates the need for workers to be involved in the communication process. Employees who are electronically surveilled become objects of information collection without participating in the exchange of information," he says.

Employees who think they are under surveillance also feel they receive less information about their job performance from their employer. "These employees feel that they receive less information about organizational decision making and have less opportunity to discuss problems with their supervisors," Botan says. "And it may be true that companies that surveil workers feel less of a need to communicate directly with employees."

Besides the problems with communication, Botan says other hindrances to employee performance can surface when workers feel they are secretly being monitored. "Employees who feel they are surveilled are more uncertain about their role in the workplace and seem to have lower self-esteem," Botan says.

He says companies should be up front about their employee surveillance practices. "Invisible surveillance -- whether real or imagined -- hinders the workplace, and possibly the bottom line in some instances," Botan says. "It's illegal for the government to do it, and companies can't surveil their customers without telling them, so it only seems right that we extend these same protections to employees."

Source: Carl Botan, (765) 494-3319; Internet:
Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; Internet
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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