When Your Company Plays I Spy

More companies are using technology to watch what you do. Can you fight back?

Published: Aug 8, 2019

Whenever Brian wants to share a controversial opinion or say anything less than complimentary about his company's leadership, he insists on having the conversation in person-and in the privacy of a meeting room. He uses Skype for practical exchanges only, won't type his CEO's name into a chat box, and never signs into his Gmail account at the office.

It turns out that Brian-whose name has been changed for privacy purposes-isn't as crazy as his colleagues thought. Companies are gathering a huge amount of data about employees now, from the timing of your emails to screenshots of your laptop. More than 2,000 employers now use monitoring technology from a company called Teramind, for example, and that's just one such service.

Assume everything you search for, send, and receive could be found if it's on the company network.

Companies, for their part, say they're mainly looking at aggregate data that may help them reduce turnover and understand productivity. But such moves can make even the securest professional feel untethered. "It's a question of psychological safety, the feeling that you can be yourself without fear of negative consequences," says Frances Weir, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. Here's how to research what data your firm does and doesn't have control over.

Ask before you sign.

If you're interviewing for a new job, make it part of your routine to ask about the firm's technology policy. Once an offer comes, look for tech clauses in the contract and ask what personal details the company tracks and shares. The legality is pretty wide here, experts say, because everything that happens on work time or on a work device should technically be related to work. "Assume everything you search for, send, and receive could be found if it's on the company network," says Brad Finkeldei, a Kansas City-based career coach. As for Brian's concern about typing the CEO's name into a chat box? He's not paranoid. "They can flag for certain words," Finkeldei says.

Pay up for your personal phone and laptop.

So many of us have work apps on our personal phone and check our bank statements or shop online from the company laptop. Even though it's annoying and expensive to have two phones and two laptops, experts say it really is the best way to draw a line between what's work and what's not. "If the expectation within your company is that you respond to email around the clock, use a separate device," says Weir. "In case an issue should come up, it's just as important for you to have a data trail as them."

Differentiate between work and personal time.

Just because technology can break all boundaries between home and office doesn't mean it should. Whether you go into the office 9 to 5 or frequently work from home, it's important to have clear times when you're logged on and off. When you're at work, the data you create belongs to the company. "Have discipline, and log out at a particular time," Weir says.

Nix colleagues from your social media.

When you feel like work is watching your every move online, don't forget to protect yourself psychologically. Though it may feel rude not to accept that follow request, it's okay to have a no-colleagues rule outside of LinkedIn. Creating that boundary between work and personal life isn't about hiding your brunch photos from Carrie in HR (though maybe that's not a bad idea, if it's a really boozy brunch). It's about protecting yourself from them. If you're sitting on your couch, scrolling through your feed, and you see Carrie's photo pop up, you'll automatically think about work. "We work so much already, and everyone needs a mental break," says Weir. "The American ethos of no boundaries is changing, and millennials are leading the way."

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