Jon Cox

Mr. McNair

English 131

12 December 2003

The Corporate Machine: Panopticism in the Modern Workplace


There are no brick walls, concrete floors, or barred windows in the modern idea of an office. Instead you are faced with four cubicle walls, no ceiling and a narrow view of a window (if you’re lucky). From our general knowledge of both prisons and offices we perceive that prisoners are watched by guards, while employees are watched by their supervisors. In this process an employee may end up spending more time surfing the internet than working, while a prisoner may successfully be able to hide something in his cell. Both these actions are generally not condoned but can not always be prevented when supervisors and guards are not always present. Employees might get away with sending e-mails to their fiancé’s, checking stock quotes, or viewing eBay auctions. This idea of surveillance is presented in the essay “Panopticism” by Michel Foucault. In it, Jeremy Bentham describes a prison drawn out in a circle with a central tower able to view inmates located around the prisons perimeter. From this central tower all inmates would be able to be seen at all times. However, the inmates would never be able to see if they were being watched from the tower or not. This surveillance would create a model of self-discipline, where offenses are not committed, for fear of possibly being seen. Currently, the situation has arisen in offices around the world that employees are misusing the internet and other forms of electronic communication. The solution many companies have found to this problem has been to monitor their employee’s usage of the internet, e-mail and phone in order to stop any unwarranted use. Like a panoptic prison, companies monitoring of employee computer and phone activity effectively curbs unproductive work, but at the cost of employee security. This continuous surveillance causes uneasiness, consequentially lowering employee productivity.

The internet, instant messaging and phone technologies of now could be considered the water cooler of yore, being constant sources of new information and gossip. But employees most likely did not have conversations recorded or saved on company file servers then. Now though, employees are having their internet usage, e-mail, instant messaging and any form of electronic communication recorded and monitored. Private employers are free to monitor their employees in almost anyway they see fit, which includes, the logging of e-mail, instant messaging, phone conversations and internet use (Levy). “Over the past few years, employee monitoring has been increasing about twice as fast as the number of employees with Internet access” (Schulman). Already roughly 15% (6.25 million) of the 40 million people in the United States workforce who are online are having their e-mail at work monitored, and 19% (7.75 million) are having their internet use monitored (Schulman). With it now possible to view employees, computer screens, backlogs of email and chat, and monitor phone conversations and logs, there is very little that employers can’t do. They say they have reason to as well, when in 2001 “60.7% of employees surveyed said they visit Web sites or surf for personal use at work” (Why Use WebSense). In a survey of French employees by the Benchmark Group, it was found that “23 percent of French employees use the Internet at work for more than an hour per day for personal reasons” (Why Use WebSense). Because of the large scale in which employers feel employees are wasting time at work it is no wonder how fast electronic monitoring has grown in businesses.

            Whenever people are monitored or watched they usually have a sense of uneasiness about them. The use of monitoring as a panopticon or a panoptic device is to instill a sense of self-discipline into people in order to increase productivity. The result of this monitoring thus is unease among employees because of the employers watching their use of the internet and e-mail. Patrick Horenstein, an employee of Nintendo’s customer service department said he feels this unease daily. As a customer service representative, he takes phone calls from frustrated customers, but can also be heard by his bosses at anytime without his knowing. After finishing a call with a customer “… every time my phone rings on the inside … I think, oh no… [I’m] afraid my boss was listening” (Horenstein). This monitoring at Nintendo also spreads into the e-mail world. Horenstein was called on by his boss concerning his receiving and replying of e-mail from three other employees on how to get out of traffic tickets. “I was giving out legal advice over email,” he said. “[My boss] told me not to use email for that, even on my break” (Horenstein). While the only consequence for this particular occasion was a reprimand, employees have been fired. Policies at Nintendo concerning e-mail can also cause unease when no mail is sent. If an e-mail received at work is of questionable content, then the job of the employee who received it is at risk. Jobs have been lost specifically over received e-mail, leading to even more concern over it use by employees (Horenstein). Nintendo, however, is just one of many big companies that employ monitoring techniques and as shown by their own employees, unease goes hand in hand with monitoring.

            The unease caused by employee monitoring can lead to far more problems than simply a worried mind. It has been found that “employees who are monitored in various ways have increased stress and fatigue, higher absenteeism, and lower morale … [as] no one feels good knowing that he is being ‘watched’” (Bezek). Stress and fatigue is not simply a factor civil rights groups and human resource managers think is a problem though. In a study of worker stress for the Communication Workers of America showed in the table below, it can seen in the percent of complaints by employees who are monitored compared to those who are not:

Somatic complaints

Monitored (%)

Unmonitored (%)

Loss of feeling in fingers/wrists



Stiff or sore wrists



Pain or stiffness in shoulders



Shoulder soreness



Pain or stiffness in arms/legs



Neck pain into shoulder/arm/hand



Neck pressure



Back pain



Racing or pounding heart



Acid indigestion



Stomach pains









Severe fatigue or exhaustion



Extreme anxiety



High tension



(Smith 1992)

As shown by the table, the number of complaints by employees who are monitored on average is more than those who were not. While the difference between the two is not always large, the uneasiness that can come from being monitored at least in this study seems to have played a part in causing more pains and tension in employees. Some of the data, such as headaches and stomach pains are not completely significant anyway to whether they are being monitored or not because being monitored does not cause them. Other data, such as high tension, extreme anxiety and depression can be explained for occurring more often among those who are monitored. Employees who are monitored are more likely to keep working and not take as many breaks for fear their boss might see what they are doing. This can result in more cases of pain and tension among employees. The occurrence of those who are being monitored exhibiting more pain or fatigue can be seen elsewhere as well. A link has been demonstrated between monitoring and psychological and physical health problems, increased boredom, high tension, extreme anxiety, depression, anger, sever fatigue, and musculoskeletal problems (Freeman). As only a health issue, the electronic monitoring of employees is a serious issue. Employees are not only faced with doing their job, but also the discomfort monitoring can bring.

            Unease can also come from an employee’s sense of his or her privacy concerning matters over the internet. Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a California-based civil liberties organization has said, "If you had someone looking over your shoulder and following you to the bathroom and timing the amount of time you spent there, I think most people would find that to be inappropriate, but we now have digital technology that effectively does the same thing" (Willis). If an e-mail concerning a family member’s health is sent to an employees business address and it is monitored and read by another employee, that employee’s privacy could be considered at risk. Cameron Murphy, the president of the New South Wales (NSW) Council of Civil Liberties, likens it to “a letter received at the office marked as confidential” (Fisher). If a message were to be read by another employee and word spread, that employee’s privacy would be violated, causing the employee to feel discomfort knowing this information was viewed by someone else. As the people responsible for this information, companies are also responsible for any misuse of it (Bezek). If a company were to somehow let this information out they would have discomforted their employee, thus leading to even more problems with productivity than what they trying to fix.

            In terms of employee productivity, monitoring can end up doing the exact opposite of what companies had hoped for. The negative health effects of being watched can lead to lower morale among employees and it is said “people under stress are sick more often and heal more slowly, which leads to an increase in sick leave and a decrease in productivity while at work” (Freeman). Opponents of monitoring also argue “that invasion of privacy can literally make employees sick and may have a counter effect on the productivity that organizations seek” (Freeman). While the number of sick days as a result of stress caused by monitoring probably does not make up the majority, it is still a contributing factor, and thus a component of lost productivity. Furthermore, the amount of work that employees are able to get done is also inhibited. Gary Mitchell, a manager of technical services for Marley Cooling Technologies also acknowledges that "there's no such thing as an eight-hour job anymore." As people work longer and longer days it is a given by some employers that some of an employees time should allow them to shop online or check on their retirement accounts (Swanson). Without this time to allow for simple home chores the burden of extended working hours can become even more overbearing.

            There are reasons that monitoring systems might need to be installed in a business; however, it is not simply a catch-all solution. There are cases of extreme loss of employee productivity, and even company secrets being traded over unmonitored e-mail. These are issues that can warrant employee monitoring, but under a controlled scale. Those who implement the technology for the monitoring of their employees need fair reason, and not simply the whim that it will help their business.

One story circulated by analysts and researchers tells of a CEO who read a Sunday newspaper article linking lost productivity at work to too much Internet use. Convinced that it was a problem at his own company, the CEO took the article to work on Monday and went straight to IT -- rather than HR -- and ordered the department to immediately install an electronic-monitoring system. (Zimmerman)

This type of compulsive buy can lead to a number of sudden discomforts for employees, and does not fairly look at the situation at each company to see what is appropriate for its size and need for monitoring. Some situations may not even require monitoring. In a survey conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project it was found much to their surprise that of “2,447 Internet users, including 1,003 who use e-mail at work, 60 percent of Americans who use e-mail at work receive 10 or fewer messages on an average day and send five or less” (Swartz). The majority of these employees surveyed do not receive enough mail for monitoring to even be a real choice, making monitoring in these particular situations an unwise decision.

Just because monitoring is cheap also does not mean it should simply be implemented. The U.S. Army recently purchased a 200,000 person installation of monitoring software from WebSense including hardware for a total cost of $1.8 million, or roughly $9 per employee. However, other implementations can cost as little as $4 per employee (Schulman). With prices so cheap, some executives, like the CEO mentioned above, take action without thinking the whole process through. In order for monitoring to work, employees would need to be notified if they are being monitored or not, or else the panopticism and self-discipline brought on by monitoring is entirely lost.

The monitoring of employees most likely will not ever go away completely in the business world, but its effects will continue to be seen by the employees who are being monitored. As panoptic devices, monitoring tools allow companies to watch employees’ work habits unlike anytime before. How a company makes use of this monitoring is important. With employee dignity, morale and productivity on the line, if it is handled poorly, or too severely both the employee and the company suffer. As more companies add employee monitoring software and hardware to their technology infrastructure, it is important to make sure these systems are being utilized well, and employees do not feel any bad will from their use. If it is handled incorrectly, the only thing lost is productivity, which ironically, is one thing it is trying to save.

Works Cited

Bezek, Peter J., Shawn M. Britton, and Robert A. Curtis. "Employer Monitoring Of Employee Internet Use And E-Mail: Nightmare Or Necessity?" MEALEY'S Cyber Tech Litigation Report 2 (2001). 2 Dec. 2003 <>.

Fisher, Vivienne. "Should employee monitoring be guilt-free?" ZDNet 17 Sept. 2002. 2 Dec. 2003 <>.

Foucault, Michel. "Panopticism." Academic Discourse: Readings for Argument. Ed. Gail Stygall. Mason, Ohio: Thomson Custom, 2003. 319-348.

Freeman, R. Edward, and Kirsten Martin. "Some problems with employee monitoring." Journal of Business Ethics 43 (2003)2 Dec. 2003 <>.

Horenstein, Patrick. Personal interview. 2 Dec. 2003

Levy, Michael. Electronic Monitoring In the Workplace: Power Through The Panopticon. UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. 2 Dec. 2003 <>.

Schulman, Andrew. The Extent of Systematic Monitoring of Employee E-mail and Internet Use. 9 July 2001. Privacy Foundation. 2 Sept. 2003 <>.

Smith, M. J., P. Carayon, K. J. Sanders, S-Y Lim and D. LeGrande. 1992. Employee Stress and Health Complaints in Jobs with and without Electronic Performance   Monitoring. Applied Ergonomics 23(1):17-27.

Swanson, Sandra. "Beware: Employee Monitoring Is On The Rise." Information Week 20 Aug. 2001. 2 Dec. 2003 <>.

Swartz, Nikki. "Americans call e-mail essential to their jobs." Information Management Journal 37.2 (2003): 16. 2 Dec. 2003 <>.

Why Use WebSense. 2003. WebSense. 2 Dec. 2003 <>.

Willis, Laurie. "Is it safe for you to surf at work? ; More employers watch Web usage." Chicago Tribune 21 Apr. 2003: 1-1. ProQuest Direct. 2 Dec. 2003 <>.

Zimmerman, Eilene. "HR Must Know When Employee Surveillance Crosses the Line." Workforce  (2002): 38-45. 2 Nov. 2003 <>.