Keeping an eye on email monitoring

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Organisations may need to revisit their policies on email and internet usage monitoring in light of the proposed NSW Workplace Surveillance Bill, according to industry experts.

Organisations may need to revisit their policies on email and internet usage monitoring in light of the proposed NSW Workplace Surveillance Bill, according to industry experts.

At a business briefing today, 'Balancing Employer Liability and Employees' Rights' -- held by legal firm Clayton Utz and security software vendor Clearswift – speakers said companies would need to formulate internet and email policies that were clearly set out, appropriate to their business, fair and legitimate.

Clayton Utz partner Robbie Walker, said effectively communicating these policies to ensure they are known and understood by all staff was a 'fundamental consideration for employers.'

David Russell, senior policy advisor, Australian Industry Group, said the proposed bill, which superseded the 1998 Workplace Video Surveillance Act and was non-technology specific, would allow employers to overtly monitor their employees for unlawful activities, activities which were contrary to the employer's interests and to monitor performance.

The bill would only allow covert monitoring when a legal authorisation has been granted.

However, Alison Peters, deputy assistant secretary Labor Council of NSW said it was important to recognise that there were risks associated with monitoring staff – including loss of productivity, absenteeism and health issues.

But she said the Labor Council acknowledged there were also legitimate reasons for monitoring staff communications, such as auditing technology cost and usage.

Russell and Peters both called for more clarity in the wording of the bill, stating that definitions of 'unlawful activity' and being 'at work' could be grey areas. They also said the bill was unclear on issues of civil law breaches, worker's compensation and OH&S monitoring.

Speakers also touched on how policy is communicated to staff. The present wording of the bill, said Russell, suggested that surveillance policy notification must be electronically communicated and he called for a re-examination of this, suggesting that including internet and email policy in an employee handbook or even in staff contracts.

But Peters was quick to point out that many employees forgot or disregarded policy statements that cautioned their email was monitored.

Walker said that although the notion of covert surveillance generally attracted the most attention, in reality it was far more important for employers to implement a good, fair overt surveillance method and to have preventive policies in place to ensure no suspicious activity passed unchecked.

When asked about the cost to employers of formulating appropriate policies and ensuring staff were notified when they're being monitored, Walker said it could be viewed as a reasonable trade-off.

Good policies lead to better productivity.' He also noted that better monitoring could help businesses identify better usage methods for technology.

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