Your Money

If you think what you do on your work computer is private, think again

Key Points
  • Employees should be under no illusions that their non-work related activity on the job is private.
  • About two-thirds of companies monitor employees for e-mail infractions, and half have fired workers for doing so.
  • Employers say your annual bonus could be affected by online activity at work, according to Simply Hired.
Shot of a young businesswoman using a digital tablet in an office
PeopleImages | E+ | Getty Images

It's possible you could be kissing that bonus goodbye.

Just as your digital imprint can snarl up your job hunt, what you do at work can impact your professional persona.

Most employees know they shouldn't be spending much time at work sending personal emails or shopping on Amazon.

Those who think of it may take the trouble to clear their browsing history, according to a survey by Simply Hired, a job-search site.

But that may not do as much to protect privacy as employees think.

Some two-thirds of companies monitor employees for e-mail infractions, and half have fired workers for those infractions, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Many employers take advantage of tracking devices to read employee email. A survey by the American Management Association found in 2007 that nearly half of companies monitored employee email, and 28 percent had fired an employee for email misuse.

To be blunt, email at work isn't private.

Who's watching?

Simply Hired surveyed about 1,000 current employers and employees online in July to find out how many think they are being secretly supervised, and how many actually are.

Turns out the two groups differ on their opinions of surveillance, what employers look at and what the impact of monitoring might be on performance reviews, raises and promotions.

Nearly three-quarters of staffers, all generations and both male and female, think their employers are watching their work activity. The type of industry and position made some difference in people's suspicions. A majority of employees in lower management positions felt they were being watched – 10 percent more than those who are entry-level workers.

Emojis in work emails? A career expert weighs in
Emojis in work emails? A career expert weighs in

Those in marketing and advertising were the likeliest to feel someone is looking over their shoulder. The next most concerned employees are those in information services and data processing.

Computers have opened the door to new methods of surveillance, using programs instead of cameras to get the job done, making it easier — and sneakier — for employers to monitor employees.

Employees' hunches that their work emails were being monitored was right. Simply Hired found more than half of employers were monitoring employee email.

Employees working in the public sector should really approach emailing at work with caution. Emails between government employees and those in the education sector may be subject to public record, according to Simply Hired's survey.

Most employees are concerned their employers monitor their browsing history at work, but fewer than half of employers actually do monitor internet use. And while employees might be concerned about social media use at work, it's the least likely to be watched by employers.

The other big disconnect in the survey: how employees and employers think non-work activity will impact promotions and bonuses. Employees thought performance reviews would be most affected, but employers turned right to bonuses.

The tide may now be turning, however, with employees using a variety of methods to shield their activity. Tech employees are the likeliest to fight back, installing privacy software on their computers to prevent their employers from accessing their personal activity. According to Simply Hired, an average 93 percent tech workers do this.

Employers may think their staff uses personal instead of office Wi-Fi to cover their tracks — in fact, only 25 percent of employees actually make the switch.

More from Personal Finance:
Take five minutes to do this. It may just get you hired.
Turning 26? Here's everything you need to know to choose your first health insurance plan
Difficult bosses can be managed with this simple HR secret strategy