With Big Brother on our screens again, a top Midlands' lawyer has warned businesses in the region that using an all-seeing eye at work can be a legal minefield.
Fergal Dowling, partner and head of employment law at the Birmingham office of Irwin Mitchell, said organisations were increasingly choosing to monitor staff by introducing their own form of Big Brother with CCTV, phone taps and monitoring of emails.
He cautioned: "Although employers are legally entitled, and in some instances, should be encouraged to monitor certain aspects of employees' activities at work, businesses must ensure they advise their staff of their intentions in advance, and ensure that the degree of monitoring is appropriate.
"Failing to inform staff they are being, or can be, monitored can lead to a breakdown in the employment relationship and open companies up to claims, such as constructive dismissal.
"This is especially true when it comes to CCTV."
CCTV surveillance is increasingly used by employers, particularly where workers have the opportunity for theft or fraud, but also as a security measure where staff deal with the public.
Mr Dowling warned: "CCTV footage taken for the purpose of monitoring staff is covered under the Data Protection Act as it is deemed to be processing of personal information, and many employers remain unaware of their obligations under the Act.
"Employers need to adhere to data protection principles, including making staff aware that personal information can be recorded by the CCTV," Mr Dowling explained
"They should also place signs in areas where cameras are located informing employ-ees they are being filmed and allow workers access to personal footage and images, on request.
"Covert CCTV monitoring will rarely be justified and should only be used in exceptional circumstances, for example, where criminal activity is suspected."
He also warned that if surveillance is deemed unnecessarily intrusive it may breach the bond of trust and confidence between employer and employee, damaging the relationship beyond repair and potentially leading to resignation and legal action.
Email and internet access at work is also an area fraught with danger for Midlands' companies and has become particularly important with its increased use.
Mr Dowling said organisations which failed to monitor employees' email and internet use, were putting themselves at risk.
Businesses could find themselves liable for legal claims if they turned a blind eye to employees' circulating inappropriate internal emails, forwarding offensive material or sending abusive messages to colleagues.
Employers can also monitor email traffic to make sure staff are not sending vast volumes of personal messages or leaking confidential information outside the workplace.
"Surveillance of email and internet use is prudent, given the risks, but this must be done in an open, rather than covert, manner," said Mr Dowling. "It should be backed up by a written policy, which is properly explained and fairly applied.
"Even where a policy is in place, employers should not permit unnecessary or excessive monitoring. Only authorised members of staff should be able to access colleagues' email and any private correspondence viewed should remain confidential. The same principles could also be applied to telephone monitoring. If it is necessary for business purposes, employees should be informed in their contracts."