You can’t personally monitor everything that occurs at your place of business. Increasingly, small-business owners are turning to surveillance systems to keep them apprised of what’s happening when they aren’t around, according to the American Management Association. In its most recent survey, the group found that 48 percent of employers use video monitoring in the workplace.
But is setting up cameras to spy on your employees and customers a good idea? Before you install any surveillance gear, consider the possible legal ramifications of doing so — as well as the advantages and disadvantages of keeping an eye on your employees and customers.
The rules around the legality of workplace surveillance cameras differ by state. Some states only allow you to monitor public areas, and places such as employee lounges are off-limits. Most states disallow monitoring areas where an employee has a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as restrooms and locker rooms.
Even in states with no privacy legislation, courts have ruled in favor of employees when the employers did not provide enough evidence that the need for surveillance overrode workers’ rights to privacy. Before installing cameras, it’s best to contact an experienced employment lawyer.
Installing security cameras in your workplace may give you two big advantages: If employees know that the cameras are there, surveillance can help prevent inappropriate and illegal behavior. If they don’t know that the cameras are there, you can catch any illegal activity and, if necessary, provide valuable evidence to police.
Here are three common problems that security cameras can help manage:
1. Adherence to company policy — Even the smallest successful businesses maintain a formal set of policies and procedures for employees to follow, both for dealing with customers and for creating the products or services the business sells. Watching camera footage of how your staff members perform their duties can give you insight into how well they are adhering to the standards that you set. It can also highlight where you need to make changes to your policies.
2. Theft and shrinkage — As a small-business owner, you probably don’t want to have to think about employee theft. But you need to consider it. Here’s why: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that employee theft costs employers between $20 billion and $40 billion a year. Theft can happen in many ways, from outright stealing from the cash register to “borrowing” inventory from the back room. Cameras can deter employee theft and catch employees in the act. However, the best way to prevent employee theft is to build a solid set of internal controls that does not give any employee both access to the physical assets of your business and the authority to account for them.
3. Harassment — Stopping inappropriate employee behavior is your responsibility. Harassment (sexual and otherwise) is taken very seriously by the courts, and employers may be held liable for providing an environment in which it’s allowed to happen. Security cameras set up in staff areas, such as kitchens and lounges, help to reinforce the company’s commitment to disallowing such behavior. They can also bolster or discredit an employee’s claim of harassment, so that it doesn’t become a “he said, she said” situation. Check to ensure that your state allows videotaping in staff areas like these. Alternatively, your state may allow monitoring of email or telephone communications between employees.
Some small-business owners choose not to install security cameras in their companies. It can create an environment of distrust that may impact employee performance and retention. Informing employees that they will be videotaped to ensure that they aren’t thieves can signal that you don’t trust them to handle their jobs. This is especially true for workplaces that try to foster creativity and free thinking. If an employee has to be concerned about having every motion monitored, she is less likely to be thinking out of the box or coming up with creative solutions. The ultimate result may be less productivity.