SpyingBack in October, I wrote about one lawyer’s terrible employee monitoring advice: suspect someone is faking sick? Try to catch them on social media!

Such “gotcha!” tactics are intrusive and condescending: they pry into employees’ private lives and suggest that employers view their workers as irresponsible children who should not be trusted. When you consider that the vast majority of employees are not faking sick — 72 percent say they have not lied about an illness to get out of work in the last year, according to CareerBuilder – social-media spying seems all the more ridiculous.

Shortly after I posted this article, Joe Pawlikowski of Worldwide101 got in touch with me. Worldwide101 is a virtual assistant company, so it’s easy to see why Pawlikowski, who works in the company’s marketing department, would have some thoughts on employee monitoring. Virtual assistants — like any remote workers — can’t be “eyeballed” by supervisors, nor can managers simply drop by their desks to check up on them.

Overseeing remote workers requires a deft approach: how do you supervise from afar without making your employees feel like you’re infiltrating their personal lives and/or spying on them?

Pawlikowski was kind enough to share his insights on employee monitoring with me — which I’ve reproduced below, with minor editing for style and clarity.

Recruiter.com: We both agree that the social media “gotcha moment” is wrong, but is monitoring employees wrong in and of itself, or is it valuable/necessary in certain situations?

Joe Pawlikowski: All employees are monitored to some degree, right? Even if it’s just the results of your work, you still have to turn that into somebody. The specific mode of monitoring is where we run into problems. As we agree, using social media as a “gotcha moment” when an employee calls out sick is a pretty underhanded move that benefits no one.

Keeping track of how employees use time, on the other hand, can be a constructive practice. So there are absolutely situations and circumstances when monitoring can be valuable. 

RC: When should we be monitoring employees?

JP: Monitoring employees is most valuable when it’s used as a means of correcting problems. If an employee isn’t meeting expectations, or has produced subpar results, you can go to the videotape, so to say. If you’ve installed software like ActivTrak on all company computers, you can review with the employee how he or she is spending working hours. Having that concrete evidence can help both boss and employee understand what needs to change and how. That’s not to say that this kind of practice is free of downsides.

RC: What, in your opinion, is the difference between “trust, but verify” and outright spying?

JP: A situation where you use tracking software or other monitoring techniques as a teaching moment is along the lines of trust, but verify. You trust that they’re doing the work, but you verify that they’re doing it well. Both boss and employee stand to learn from this use of employee monitoring.

Outright spying is when a boss uses tracking software to see what employees are doing at all hours. Using the previous example, instead of looking at ActivTrack to identify areas for improvement, a spying boss uses it to nickel and dime every minute of an employee’s day. This is productive for no one. The employee feels suffocated, and the boss is frankly wasting his or her time on minutiae instead of larger issues. 

RC: Do you think we can draw a hard line between appropriate and inappropriate monitoring, or is this a grey area where companies will have to make their own personal decisions on the matter?

JP: I think we can identify hard lines on each extreme. Using tracking software to watch what an employee does at all hours is clearly on the wrong side of the hard line in that direction. On the other side, asking for reports and results is perfectly appropriate in that direction.

That leave us with a pretty large gray area in the middle, and I’m personally not sure how it should be shaded. If a company finds that weekly spot checks on employee computer usage helps point them in the right direction, that might work for them. But it won’t work for all companies. Developers at startups, for instance, might mutiny against such practices. For employers, it’s about finding the balance between trust and a desire to understand what might be getting in the way of results. For most companies, especially startups, this will require some experimentation.

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