The Morality of Whistle-blowing
Dealing with Co-Workers with Bad Workplace Ethics

GPS Tracking on Employees’ Cell Phones Raises Ethical Questions

Rights and Duties Underlie Ethical Obligations when Tracking Employees using GPS

From time to time an ethics student of mine writes an excellent blog for the course and I post it online. Today’s comes from Nicole Mogg. It presents a view of the emerging ethical values surrounding GPS tracking of employees that threaten privacy rights.

Imagine being tracked all of the time by the company you work for. When work ends, the monitoring does not. You have no privacy; someone will always be collecting data on your personal movements. This is something that is happening now in business.

Technological innovations today have brought forth some very interesting ethical questions. One such question pertains to tracking employees through GPS on their smartphones. More specifically, is it ethical to track employees through their cell phones when they are not even working?

A recent case from May 2015 has raised some eyebrows and warrants discussion from a workplace ethics perspective. Intermex, a wire transfer business, required employees to download a tracking software application, Xora StreetSmart, onto their company-issued phones. This application has many beneficial features such as allowing employees to clock in and out of work, fill out forms, and log their work-related trips; however, it also tracks employee movements using GPS. Intermex required employees to keep their phone on 24/7; they could not turn them off to avoid being tracked while on their own personal time. The problem is not that it tracks employees while they are working; the issue arises when employees are still being monitored while off-duty.

I believe that the company is acting ethically when tracking employees while they are working, as long as the company gives notice, gains consent from the employees, and considers whether employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy. However, I do not think tracking employees while they are on their own personal time is ethical. According to the American Bar Association, employers are not required to notify employees that they are being tracked. I think this is an invasion of privacy and violates employee rights.

Employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy when they are on their own personal time. In fact, a recent court case, in which an employee named Myrna Arias is suing for invasion of privacy, states, “the intrusion would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.” Lillian Chaves Moon, former appellate attorney with the Office of Solicitor, Occupational Safety and Health Division, for the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington, D.C, states that most courts have ruled that companies may use tracking devices on company-owned equipment. An employee would then not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. However, “tracking employees during non-work hours can be an invasion of the employee’s privacy, whether the tracking is done via the employer-owned or employee-owned equipment.”

From an ethical perspective, tracking decisions should not interfere with certain fundamental rights without extraordinary reasons, such as protecting other important rights. The company must consider the rights of employees and stakeholders and the company’s duties to these groups. Individuals have a fundamental right to privacy when not at work and it should not be violated by the GPS tracking application. The reason for the software, to create a more effective and efficient company, does not qualify as an extraordinary reason to override an individual’s fundamental right to privacy

Companies have a duty to treat their employees with respect and caring. Individuals should be treated with dignity, and monitoring a person’s movements without a valid business reason is not giving that person the respect he or she deserves. Companies need to consider whether their actions respect the fundamental rights of the individuals involved—namely the employees they are tracking.

Not only is GPS monitoring of employees while off-duty an invasion of the employees’ privacy, it also could lead to workplace discrimination based on information gathered from tracking employees in their personal lives. Gathering personal data through tracking software could lead to workplace retaliation if an employer does not agree with personal choices that an employee makes during his or her private life. According to Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, “GPS tracking provides the employer with a record of everywhere employees spend every minute of their lives.”

Employees are also affected by the constant monitoring, considering it an invasion of privacy when they are not working. According to Lillian Moon, “When the device tracks non-work time, such as during the evenings, weekends, and when the employee is on vacation, the employer may gain private information about an employee that would be considered an invasion into the employee’s personal privacy.” This may lead to a more stressful work situation and dissatisfied employees.

Legal questions exist as well about GPS tracking during off-hours: Is it legal to track employees when not on the clock and gather personal data about their lives? Do employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy when using their phones during their personal time? Another problem companies may experience is difficulty in attracting new employees if their actions regarding GPS tracking become well known. Future employees may be wary about being tracked at all times, which may make it more difficult to hire qualified people. Also, if the public does not like the fact that companies are tracking their employees 24/7, the media could generate negative publicity and harm these companies’ reputations, and ultimately their bottom line.

The bottom line is the harms to society outweigh the benefits that society would get from constant monitoring. The companies would be more efficient and able to track their workforce while employees are on the job, but the negative aspects from the tracking while employees are not working detract from the advantages the company realizes overall. Also, society as a whole is harmed more than it would benefit from this constant monitoring by increasing distrust between employers and employees.

So, what can be done? I recommend that companies engaging in this behavior use a software program that turns the GPS off when employees clock out, thereby eliminating data collection when employees are living their personal lives. This solves the problem of tracking employees when they are off-duty, while still utilizing the beneficial aspects of the software while at work.

Blog by Nicole Mogg and posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 24, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: Ms. Mogg is a student at Cal Poly.