With the election recently passed and the speculation of Obama’s first 90 days, it is a good time to discuss unintended effects of legislation.  Now, this isn’t about the merits of health care reform, etc…  Actually, I am referring to the effects of over-legislation.  This is a concern at the forefront of any good legislator’s mind when producing a bill: the creation of a black market.  Now, given my background and strange (potentially unhealthy) obsession with describing everything in economic terms, I will spare you the math and equations.  You can, however, request graphs; they are pretty colorful…  In a nutshell, it is possible to create too harsh of legislation and force behavior into a black market.  What does this have to do with management and young professionals, you ask?  Well, management may implement certain policies which, skin deep, appear to be working but really are not curbing targeted behaviors.

While I am sure that everyone can come up with a host of activities this could possibly refer too, I am thinking specifically thinking about monitoring an employee’s computer usage.  It is true that a chunk of employers monitor employee Internet and email usage.  This is common and most employees, I think, expect it.  If this is a surprise to you, here it is in bold letters:

Many employers monitor your email and internet usage.  Regardless whether this practice is pursued at your office, you should consider anything on your work computer property of your employer.

Just to clear the air of the obvious question: I don’t have a problem with this… in theory.  It makes sense, you want to ensure that your employees are at least maintaining a respectable level of productivity and not constantly surfing Facebook or Myspace on your dime.  There is a level where you can have too much monitoring, however.

Too much monitoring, you say?  Shenanigans!  Employee monitoring to an employer is like analytics to a stats nerd… you can never have too much!  Now, being a nerd myself (I have played drinking games in college and calculated the probability of having to take a drink; you’re hard pressed to get much nerdier), I definitely understand this position but too much monitoring may push your employees to move their behavior to a black market of sorts.

For managers, there is a takeaway here: no employee is ever 100% efficient.  The closer you get, the better off you are but, like truly understanding what women want, it will likely be forever elusive.  These systems and policies can only reduce the time employees spend on non-business activities.

There are many negative results of implementing overly invasive screening programs beyond creating this black market:

  • Reduced efficiency – employees will begin to adjust their work habits to accommodate the new systems and policies.  Sometimes, the very thing that is being combatted is what makes the employee as effective as they are (i.e. blocking LinkedIn for a job function that benefits from networking…).
  • Entrenched management – if there is an employee who is monitoring everything, that employee is going to be “unfireable” since they can see any problems coming their way and leverage the information.  Also, this employee will have more information to reduce and possibly even eliminate workplace threats.  An employee they decide they don’t like?  They have the information to get them fired; we won’t even discuss the potential for falsifying records against a targeted employee…
  • Greater IT risk – the more information you collect, the more information that can be stolen.  Keystroke logging is especially dangerous.  True, it helps to better understand behavior (i.e. an employee is running Excel for four hours but has not typed a single keystroke?  Could be a problem…) but if your employees do anything personal from a work computer such as checking their bank account (not an uncommon practice), you have just logged their user name and password.  This information must then be safeguarded… what protections do you have in place?  Granted, a work computer is never expected to be private but there are potential liability issues if this information is stolen from your database.  Also, the administrator has access to everyone’s corporate login information… this eliminates the protections of having separate job functions required to process a transaction or make a change… *cough* SocGen *cough*…
  • Reduced view of true activity – employers will not be able to see what their employees are truly doing.  This means that they can’t effectively identify where productivity is lost.

If you set unreasonable barriers, your employees will seek to circumvent them.  There are many options available and for every person seeking to put these systems into place, there is at least one person figuring out how to get past them.  It would be impossible to list them all but needless to say, they are numerous and range from a plugin on the employees browser to shifting all illegitimate internet usage to a smart phone.

Technology provides some really cool solutions to some really complicated problems but these solutions need to be taken with a grain of salt.  Don’t simply install these types of programs without first asking questions and understanding the implications of the action.  In some cases, the lost productivity associated with work computer usage is minimal to the costs of installing software designed to combat this loss.  It is up to you, as an employer, to analyze the costs and benefits of these systems and decide on an appropriate course of action.

As an employer, you should seek to achieve a happy medium – enough for you to feel comfortable, not so much that your employees feel violated and not trusted.