Boss may watch your emails without telling
Many companies regularly monitor the email communications of their employees - and a number of them are doing it in real-time.
This is part of the findings in the survey "Monitoring and Personal Data Privacy in the Workplace" done by Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management (HKIHRM) in co-operation with the Office of Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data (PCO).
A total of 86 companies in HK with staff establishments from less than 100 to over 1,000 people were polled in August and September on their staff surveillance practices at the workplace. PCO is expected to release a code of practice next week for employers to comply with.
According to the survey, it is found that almost 56 per cent of the responding companies have admitted they monitor the email communications of their staff.
Among them, 40 per cent do it without a specific cause.
The survey finds that other areas or means under surveillance at workplace also include the use of Internet, intranet, telephone conversations, closed-circuit television (CCTV) and video as well as staff cards.
Of the 86 firms, a total of 84 have one or more of the measures in place. Monitoring of emails (48 firms) ranks third, closely after staff cards (52) and use of Internet (49). Others in descending order are use of intranet (47), CCTV and video (37) and phone recording (25).
Watching without telling
Although close to 98 per cent of the companies admit they have been monitoring staff in the workplace, about 16 per cent say they do not have a personal data policy according to which the monitoring is carried out. In other words, their staff do not know that they are being monitored.
Acting Privacy Commissioner, Tony Lam, said there was no clear-cut standard according to which an employer could be readily found guilty of infringing on an employee's rights to privacy.
"It is subject to the actual circumstances. Very often, the employers have good reasons to have the surveillance measures installed in the workplace to protect companies' interests such as to prevent commercial secrets from being released without authority," Lam said.
However, questions, such as under what conditions data collected by the surveillance acts could be used or exposed, would be tackled in great detail by the code of practice due to be released, Lam said.
Chairman of HKIHRM Data Protection Committee, William Chan, believed it should be taken as legitimate if a company explained its personal data policy clearly to its staff so that they knew there were such monitoring activities in the workplace.
"The institute recognizes that employers have a legitimate need to monitor the workplace for security and other purposes. On the other hand, companies also have the obligation to formulate appropriate policies to strike a balance between company interests and a staff's legitimate privacy rights," Chan said.
He called on employers to have frank communication with employees to build up mutual trust in this regard.
Since the Privacy Commission was set up in 1996, a total of 5,430 complaints have been lodged of which 115, or 2 per cent, are about workplace surveillance. Only one case was established after investigation, that involved an employer disclosing the address of an ex-employee to an irrelevant third party.
Chan said in the case of telephone recordings, as found in the survey, most were used in customer service hotlines concerning banking transactions or others.