Electronic Surveillance of Nurses in the Workplace

Ethical Considerations

Rodney D. Wallace, PhD, MSN/ED, RN


Online J Issues Nurs. 2018;23(2) 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Many employers monitor their employees with surveillance equipment, such as closed-circuit television, global positioning systems, or the Internet, in order to collect data to further their business goals. Employers have always had legal justification for electronic workplace surveillance, as the United States (U.S.) courts have consistently ruled in the employer's favor (Ghoshray, 2013). Nurses should be cognizant of issues surrounding workplace electronic surveillance, as they are likely to encounter surveillance, just as do many employees in other industries (Ball, 2010). Surveillance tools, such as radio frequency identification (RFID) tagged to identification badges, and video surveillance cameras that track movement and behavior, have been used in areas where nurses work (Boyce, 2011; Fisher, & Monahan, 2008; Khan & Nausheen, 2017). Although the traditional justifications for electronic surveillance of employees may be less relevant to the nursing workplace than in such industries as banking, insurance, and real estate, this surveillance is being used today in nursing workplaces. This column will discuss both the benefits and the potential negative consequences of electronic surveillance, along with ethical decision-making related to electronic surveillance among nurses, thus helping nurses to identify fair and ethical guidelines related to electronic surveillance in their workplaces.

Employers have been surveilling their workers for centuries (Holland, Cooper, & Hecker, 2015). However, it was not until the 1990s, when electronic surveillance technology was greatly enhanced and became more cost effective, that this practice began proliferating in the workplace. Recent data suggest that approximately 78% of major U.S. companies monitor email, Internet, and/or phone usage of employees (Ribitzky, 2014).

Although employees have voiced objection to the pervasive and intrusive nature of electronic surveillance, civil liberty groups have made little progress in convincing the courts that electronic workplace surveillance has negative implications for employees (Sanders, Ross, & Pattison, 2013). In this column, I will discuss both the advantages of workplace surveillance for employers and the potential disadvantages of workplace surveillance for employees, along with ethical decision-making considerations related to electronic workplace surveillance of nurses. I will conclude by noting that nurses need to be aware of electronic surveillance in their workplace, understand why and when it is justified, and question electronic-surveillance practices that do not appear to be justified.