Running Your Business

Data Ownership in the Workplace: Who Owns What?

  • On company-owned devices, employers own data and can monitor nearly everything an employee does
  • On employee-owned devices, employers can monitor when the employee uses the internet at work
  • Your employee handbook should clearly outline rules for internet privacy and data ownership

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Posted by September 25, 2017

When employees use the internet, it blurs the line between their work and private lives—especially if they use company devices. So, what are you allowed to monitor and who owns what when it comes to data? We look at the rules for data ownership and privacy so you can find the right balance for your workplace.

Company-Owned Devices

If your company purchased the devices used by your employees, like computers and smartphones, you have more rights. All data and files are considered your property, not the property of the employee. If an employee leaves your company, they are not entitled to keep any data on the devices. They may request that you send them personal files left behind on the devices, such as pictures, but whether or not you send them is up to you.

If you own the phone used by the employee, you can keep the phone number. This is useful when a client has already saved the number as a contact for your business, especially for salespeople. You can transfer the number directly to another employee so they can stay in touch with the client. Keep in mind, if the employee owns the device and jumps to a competitor, they can keep the number and use it to poach clients.

Finally, when an employee uses a company-owned device, you are allowed to track what they are doing. The employee should not assume privacy if they use company-owned devices for personal use.

Employee-Owned Devices

If employees use their own devices for work, it’s less clear who owns what. You can monitor what the employee does on their devices when they use the internet at work. You can also request that the employees install software to monitor the devices outside of the workplace since they may be handling private company information.

However, employees may refuse to install the software on their own devices. In this case, a simpler solution might be to buy a company device for their business use.

As for data ownership, you can’t demand that the employee return the device if they quit, since it belongs to them. One option is to install software that deletes all data—or the “company data” part of the device, depending on the software you use—at your request. This way, you can prevent a quitting employee from leaving with confidential information.

Once again, the employee must agree to install the software. Some employees may prefer to use a company-owned device rather than risk their private data.

Communicating With Employees

Your employee handbook should clearly outline your policies regarding privacy and data in the workplace. Let employees know when they are being monitored and explain who owns what data on company and personal devices. When new employees join the company, this information should be included in their training.

You should review these policies with all staff once a year. Clear communication will ensure employees know how to properly use their devices and avoid unnecessary surprises or rule violations.

Finding the Right Balance

While you can monitor what employees do online while using their devices, this doesn’t mean you always should. Not only is it difficult to keep up with all of the information, it also shows employees you don’t respect their privacy. For example, just because you can track an employee’s location 24/7 with a GPS, doesn’t mean you should.

Before monitoring, ask yourself: what is the end goal? If you want to improve workplace productivity, install software on company devices to track keystrokes and block unproductive websites.

However, taking screenshots and recording everything that an employee does online might be going overboard. It’s up to you to decide how much freedom and privacy you want to give your employees—and remember, it’s a two-way street.

Privacy and data ownership in the workplace are tricky issues for business owners, but by considering this information, you can find the right balance for you and your employees.

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