Does Spying on Employees Really Work?

Celeste O’Keefe, CEO of a 16-person company that produces multimedia presentations for trial lawyers, had warned her staff that SpectorSoft monitoring software was installed on the company’s computers. What one of her employees didn’t realize, perhaps, was that O’Keefe could track her even when she used her laptop outside the office. “She liked Jon & Kate Plus Eight,” O’Keefe remembers. “She looked at it a lot.”

This subordinate spent her days on a New Orleans sales call in a coffee shop, sending out her resume and catching up on tabloid gossip. When she returned from New Orleans, O’Keefe fired her.

“She said, ‘I’m sorry,’ and I said, ‘So am I.’”

When it comes to slacking off on the job, there’s a fine line between intermittently checking e-mail and sports scores and essentially stealing from the company. But is monitoring software really an effective deterrent?

According to Nucleus Research, nearly half of U.S. workers use Facebook at work, and 1 in 33 have created their entire profile while on the job. Another survey by comScore says 1 in 5 of web surfers visiting porn sites were viewing them at work. A variety of small business owners, such as O’Keefe, are using monitoring software to keep their ever-shrinking staffs focused. Some even hope it will deter them from leaking sensitive company information. However, it's not clear whether these tools are any more useful than merely checking up on employees and judging their performance based on what they do (and don't) accomplish.

Monitoring vs. Stalking

O’Keefe fired two employees last year (the second was unproductive, chatting with friends and buying merchandise online). And before she installed the software, another employee stole a list of the company’s clients, a transgression O’Keefe didn’t learn about until months later.

These examples, says SpectorSoft president Doug Fowler, are why monitoring software is necessary. “What employers are hoping to avoid are leaks of confidential information,” he said. “And employees who are not getting their jobs done because they’re goofing off on the Internet all day.” The idea isn’t to stalk employees, but to deter them from misbehaving. “We didn’t create this,” Fowler said of his company’s line of monitoring software, “so that you can snoop on your employees 24 hours a day or find any little reason to get rid of somebody.”

O’Keefe says she only looks at her records—a series of screenshots playable in slideshow mode—when she suspects something’s amiss, such as when employees minimize windows as she tours the office. In the case of one employee, she confronted him with the evidence, issuing him one last chance before letting him go.

But Jose Nazario, senior security researcher for Arbor Networks (whose enterprise-level network monitoring software Peakflow also lets employers track workers), worries that not all employers are as skilled at confrontation as O’Keefe. “A lot of people try to replace human resource management with technology,” he said. “It’s probably far more of a deterrent that your boss may walk in at any time, or wonder why you’re not getting things done.”

As for that question of deterrence, there’s no hard evidence that monitoring software has that kind of chilling effect on stealth web surfing. Neither Fowler nor Nazario, whose companies sell different kinds of tracking software, could offer any stats. Barry Friedman, associate professor of human resource management at the State University of New York in Oswego, suspects software like this does act as a deterrent, but agrees there are few empirical studies that suggest a connection.

If you don’t want employees going to irrelevant sites, one wonders, why even give them the opportunity? Another option in boosting productivity is to block inappropriate or distracting websites outright.

While he accepts monitoring in general, Nazario argues that this method is still less patronizing than using essentially the same censoring software parents use with their children. “The ‘You can do whatever you want, but remember you’re being watched and use your best judgment’ approach is more trusting,” he said.

Tools of the Trade

In the world of monitoring software, some services are more invasive than others. SpectorSoft’s products, for instance, which vary based on the number of licenses and whether they can record to a server or just to a local machine, record e-mails, websites visited, chat conversations, and more by taking screen shots at predetermined intervals. Employers can then play back these snapshots in much the same way you’d scroll through photos or video on a DVR.

The server-based program Spector 360 allows managers to spot trends across the entire company and compare reports for different employees, potentially identifying the most unreformed web surfer of the bunch. Think carefully before you opt for those comparative analytics, though: Spector 360 starts at a steep $1,995 for 15 licenses. Spector Pro, for home use and small businesses, starts at $99.95 per license; Spector CNE, a corporate product meant for smaller and more focused investigations, starts at $495 for three users. Unlike with security software, at least, these are one-time—not subscription—fees.

Thanks to a keylogger, SpectorSoft’s products give employers the option of tracking everything their workers type. Arbor Networks’ Nazario says that crosses a line. What if, for instance, an employee takes five minutes to purchase a Mother’s Day gift, surrendering credit card information in the process? “You don’t know how that’s stored,” Nazario warned. “You don’t know how it’s used. Who’s looking at that? A network-based solution [such as Peakflow] says, ‘This person spent five minutes on’ That’s reasonable.”

SpectorSoft’s Fowler agrees that Internet use, like red meat, caffeine, and reality TV, is okay in moderation. “Employees have busy lives,” he said. “They may want to spend a few minutes checking e-mail, or visiting a sports site to see who won.”

To Spy or Not to Spy?

It’s logical for an employer to presume that if he hires someone to do a job, he’ll get his money’s worth. Monitoring software, which can track everything from e-mails to websites visited to IM conversations, is one way to make sure employees are staying productive, and not leaking any potentially sensitive information. What’s less clear, however, is to what extent this software actually deters lazy and downright dishonest behavior.

If you do feel the need to intervene in your employees’ on-the-clock web surfing, there’s an argument to be made that monitoring is actually less patronizing than outright blocking sites you deem inappropriate. Just know that this is a pricier solution, especially if you’ve got more than a few computers to track. Whatever you decide, a good place to start would be making the rounds more often to see what your charges are—or aren’t—doing.