The effect of formal advance notice and justification on internet monitoring fairness: much about nothing?

Author:Alder, G. Stoney
Position:Employee performance

Considerable discussion stresses the importance of implementing employee monitoring systems in ways that enhance perceived fairness. Less attention focuses on the organizational context in which such systems are implemented. A longitudinal field experiment examined the effects of advance notice, justification, and trust on employee reactions to Internet monitoring. Results indicate that formal characteristics of monitoring implementation were less important than organizational climate in determining employee reactions. Neither advance notice nor justification significantly affected perceptions of monitoring fairness. In contrast, trust significantly influenced these perceptions, which in turn positively affected employees' job attitudes.


Organizations have always monitored employee performance. However, advances in electronic technology have changed both the nature and the scope of employee monitoring and surveillance (Stanton, 2000a; Ambrose & Alder, 2000). Internet monitoring is one of the fastest growing segments of electronic surveillance, with 63 percent of companies monitoring their employees' Internet connections (Swanson, 2001). In the United States alone, an estimated 14 million employees have their Internet use under continuous observation. Worldwide, an estimated 27 million employees are under such monitoring (Firoz, Yaghi, & Souckova, 2006). Although the specifics of the particular Internet monitoring systems differ, they typically allow employers to track and control their employees' Internet access. Internet control systems were originally designed to prevent overloads on organizational networks. Newer systems shift focus to restricting employee access to objectionable sites (e.g., pornographic) or to a broad range of "time-wasting," non-work related sites including gambling and travel.

Internet Monitoring Debate

The rapid increase in Internet monitoring has generated considerable debate concerning its advantages and disadvantages (Boehle, 2000; Inam, 2000; Meckbach, 1997). Organizations that utilize monitoring cite the need to curtail employee Internet abuse. For example, in a recent survey, 51 percent of employees who use the Internet at work said they spend between one and five working hours per week surfing the Internet for personal reasons (Firoz, et al., 2006). SexTracker, a service that monitors usage of pornographic web sites, estimates that 70 percent of the traffic that takes place on these sites occurs during office hours (Corbin, 2000). Similarly, in an Eltron software Internet abuse study, 62 percent of organizations reported that employees access sexually explicit Web sites on company computers (Boehle, 2000). Such activities clearly represent a misuse of company resources and result in both lost productivity and potential legal liability. Thus, employers use Internet monitoring to discourage productivity loss due to recreational use, avoid sexual harassment suits, eliminate the download of pirate software, preserve bandwidth, and prevent the loss of proprietary information (Firoz et al., 2006; Kelly, 2001; MacInnis, 1998; Meckbach, 1998). In contrast, critics contend that Internet monitoring is abusive and an Orwellian invasion of employee privacy. As a result, they argue the practice undermines trust, damages worker morale, and ruins previously good working relationships (Corbin, 2000; Firoz et al., 2006; Kemper, 2000).

Monitoring Research

Although debate continues, it appears these systems are here to stay. Consequently, it is useful to understand how it affects organizationally relevant outcomes such as employee attitudes and behaviors. To date, there is little research on the effects of Internet monitoring (Boehle, 2000; however, see Alge, 2001, for an exception). We know of only one study (Alge, 2001) that focuses specifically on Internet monitoring, though there has been some research on reactions to other forms of employee surveillance. The most notable is computer performance monitoring (CPM). We suggest CPM research may be relevant and provide insight into employee reactions to Internet monitoring.

In contrast to the broader public debate concerning the benefits and drawbacks of employee monitoring, CPM researchers take a middle ground proposing that monitoring technology itself is neutral (Attewell, 1991; Aiello & Svec, 1993). According to this perspective, it is how the system is designed, implemented, and used that affects employee reactions and the system's effectiveness (Alder, 1998; Chalykoff & Kochan, 1989; Stanton, 2000a; Stanton & Weiss, 2000). CPM research indicates that one key to ensuring positive reactions to monitoring is to implement the system in a way that employees believe is fair (Ambrose & Alder, 2000, Hovorka-Mead, Ross, Whipple, & Renchin, 2002; Kidwell & Bennett, 1994; Stanton, 2000b). Accordingly, CPM research attempts to identify formal implementation characteristics that influence fairness perceptions.

Alge (2001) argued that perceived fairness is an important determinant of employees' reactions to Internet monitoring and that the manner in which organizations implement an Internet monitoring system drives assessments of the system's fairness. He found support for his arguments in a laboratory study. Results indicated that restricting monitoring to job-relevant activities and affording those who were monitored input into the process reduced the perceived invasion of privacy and enhanced perceptions of procedural justice.

This paper builds on Alge's (2001) research in several ways. First, the field experiment described here investigated the degree to which Alge's findings extend beyond the lab. Second, this paper examines the effects of different implementation characteristics. Specifically, whereas Alge focused on relevance and participation, the study described here investigates the effects of advance notice and justification on Internet monitoring fairness. Finally, we argue that the organizational context in which monitoring occurs is at least as important as the method of implementation. Figure 1 depicts the hypothesized relationships.


Antecedents and Consequences of Internet Monitoring Fairness

Advance Notice

We first consider the relationship between advance notice and fairness. Silent, covert monitoring in which supervisors monitor employees without informing them is widespread (Ambrose, Alder, & Noel 1998; Greenberg, Canzoneri, & Annamma, 2000). In order to capture deviant employees in action, many managers believe it is important not to inform employees of such security measures. On the other hand, critics of secret monitoring suggest that it is tantamount to spying and creates an atmosphere of mistrust (Ambrose et al., 1998). Employees feel the practice violates their basic rights in areas such as privacy, due process, and dignity (Firoz et al., 2006). Federal laws tend to strike a compromise between these two extremes. They do not aim to prohibit monitoring of employees expressly. Rather, they require that organizations notify employees when they are being monitored. A few states have followed suit (DeTienne & Alder, 1995; Vaught, Taylor, & Vaught, 2000).

Advance notice is an important component of procedurally fair systems. Folger, Konovsky, and Cropanzano (1992) identified advance notice as one of three principles central to procedural due process. Brockner and associates (Brockner et al., 1994) reasoned that procedures are unfair if decision makers implement them without regard for legitimate concerns of those affected, such as preparing to cope with the adverse consequences of a decision. In this regard, advance notice is essential because it enables employees to prepare for the impending procedure. Stone, O'Brien, and Bommer (1989) found that advance notice enhanced the perceived fairness of drug testing. Similarly, Brockner et al. (1994) found a positive relationship between advance notice and the perceived procedural fairness of layoffs.

The issue of notice is also important to fairness in the context of Internet monitoring. To the extent that covert monitoring is an invasion of privacy, employees who are not informed of monitoring in advance may feel as though the organization does not respect their privacy and is biased against them (Hovorka-Mead et al., 2002). Leventhal (1980) argues that bias suppression is a basic tenet of procedural justice. Ambrose and Alder (2000) consider the importance of advance notice of computer performance monitoring from an organizational justice perspective. They reason that covert monitoring involves deception and therefore violates the ethicality rule of procedural justice (cf. Leventhal, 1980). Taken together, these arguments imply that secret monitoring may undermine perceptions of fairness. Marx and Sherizen (1987) relate anecdotal accounts of employees who felt unfairly treated when they learned their organization had secretly monitored their performance. Employees may interpret covert monitoring of their use of the Internet as an indication that their company does not respect their privacy, acts unethically, and is biased against them.

In contrast, disclosure of monitoring may enhance perceptions of fairness (Hovorka-Mead et al., 2002). When employees are informed of Internet monitoring in advance, they may perceive greater opportunities to express concerns they may have about the impending implementation. Advance notice of Internet monitoring also enables employees to prepare to cope with the impact of the new system (Brockner et al., 1994). In the context of monitoring, this preparation may involve greater self-regulation to avoid negative outcomes (Hovorka-Mead et al., 2002). For example, employees who know of Internet monitoring beforehand can make any necessary modifications to their online activities before the new system detects inappropriate behavior. Finally, providing advance notice of Internet monitoring signals to employees that the...

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