Companies outside these sectors often take a more reactive approach, says Sussman, capturing communications through a records-retention programme (which archives data for a set period of time) and then looking back on that information only when it’s necessary to address an issue. This includes not only messages and emails, but often video calls on Skype, Zoom or Teams, too, which can be recorded and logged.
Many workplace tools – including Slack, Google Workspace and Microsoft Teams – have features that allow management to store and search through messages, especially if they’ve paid for a premium plan. That means that even if you create a private two- or three-way group chat – or send direct messages – those seemingly private conversations can still be viewed by management (though they will often have to go through IT or HR for access, typically with a valid reason). In many cases, including on Slack, companies can even review edit history and access deleted messages. Some email systems will similarly create an automatic copy of all messages that pass through them, while others will create backup copies of new messages as they hit your inbox. As such, one can never assume a deleted message is gone for good.
Brian Kropp, chief of research for global research and advisory firm Gartner’s HR practice, based in the Washington DC area, says the only time companies really go back and look through these communications is when there is reason to believe there’s been some sort of performance management problem, data theft, harassment or other complaint that warrants an internal investigation. General griping that doesn’t target an individual is rarely cause for concern. Similarly, everyday managers don’t typically have the ability to freely conduct keyword searches for things like their names.
“There is just too much information to make it worth their effort to go through and analyse everything,” explains Kropp. “Plus, if you as an employee were ever to find out that they were going through and just generally scanning through your email – and if that came out – the reputational damages would be enormous. Does it happen? Yes, but it’s very, very rare.”
‘Employees know very little’
When companies do suspect unprofessional behaviour has taken place, there are minimal restrictions to prevent them scrutinising employees’ workplace communications. Even though US and European laws do protect communications on things like collective bargaining, Kropp says that, “anywhere in the world, there’s no legal requirement that says employers have to inform you about the data they are collecting about you”.
Some companies will include a high-level statement in their employee handbook that says workers will have no expectation of workplace privacy in their communications, but the actual degree to which they’re being monitored can be extremely difficult to detect. “When you sign a contract, normally the employer doesn’t tell you, ‘we are monitoring you’,” says Aida Ponce del Castillo, a Brussels-based senior researcher at the Foresight Unit of the European Trade Union Institute. “Employees often know very little.”