Tracking the work locations of employees is easier and more affordable than ever. Insights gleaned from monitoring the location of team members can help improve safety, operations, record keeping, and customer service.
However, it is important to keep in mind the morale of employees. Implementing new technologies at the workplace does not come without risk, as there is often no clear precedent — legal or otherwise — regarding their use.
In this article, we’ll review some ethical and legal considerations to help employers construct a policy for using GPS tracking apps in 2020 that’s fair and beneficial to all parties.
Considering state laws about location tracking
U.S. states can have their own privacy laws that may influence what employers can do when it comes to location tracking for work purposes. That’s why it’s smart to first check existing laws in the areas that your business operates.
When it comes to tracking employee location, employers should first ask:
- Do I need consent?
- Am I tracking a personal or company-owned device or vehicle?
- Am I tracking the employee on or off company premises?
- Am I tracking the employee during work hours and/or off hours?
Communicating with your team
No matter the law and method of tracking employees, it’s always a good idea to get consent beforehand. Few states have passed laws specifically concerning employee location tracking, so obtaining consent can go a long way in protecting both the employer and the employee in a legal grey area.
Even for company-owned devices used on company premises, your team members should be fully aware that you are tracking them. This doesn’t just go for location tracking; consent is also advisable for monitoring communications, files, web history, background checks, and mail. Even if you are not legally bound to get consent, doing so boosts transparency and trust.
Consent doesn’t always mean signing a form. If you have security cameras installed at your office, for example, it’s probably sufficient to have a few well-placed signs informing staff that they are under surveillance. Furthermore, cameras should be in plain view and not hidden.
Consent is especially important if you plan to track employee location during off-work hours. To a lesser degree, you’ll also want to notify teams if you plan to track off company premises or on personally owned devices that are used for work.
Personal vs. company-owned devices
Employers are generally within their rights to monitor all activity carried out on a company-owned device. If you distribute work phones and laptops, your company can track them via GPS or IP address, for example. This extends to company-owned devices taken off premises and during off-work hours, such as when the employee is at home. If you plan to use this type of location tracking, issuing company-owned devices is a safe bet.
Tracking employees’ personally-owned devices is not a clear-cut issue. Again, the employer should weigh a few important questions:
- Is the device being used for work?
- Is the device being used during work hours?
- Is the device being used on work premises?
If the answer to the first question is ‘no’, then you should reconsider using that device to track the employee. Even with consent, there’s little justification for an employer to track a personal phone or laptop that’s not being used for work.
If your company allows personally owned devices to be used for work, you’ll want to craft an appropriate Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) company policy. If the device can access company servers, networks, data, and documents, it might be necessary to install some sort of mobile device management (MDM) software or work tracking application that allows IT staff to remotely monitor and, if necessary, wipe the device.
Looking to automate GPS tracking? Check out our free guide with 11 great reasons why you should use geofences.
Tracking work vehicles
Employers can track the location of any company-owned vehicle used by employees. As with tracking company-owned phones and laptops, this can be done without consent, but it’s advisable to get consent anyway.
Tracking vehicles without the owner’s consent is explicitly illegal in several states including Texas, Virginia, California, Minnesota, and Tennessee. Even outside of those states, employers would be ill-advised to monitor employee’s personal vehicles without consent using any sort of GPS tracker, as they might well fall afoul of broader privacy laws.
Another way to track GPS location is with a mobile app from a device that’s used for work. Mobile teams, field sales reps, and construction companies, for example, can monitor crew location to ensure team members are at job or client sites when they’re tracking time. A geofencing time clock app such s Hubstaff can even automatically start or stop the timer when someone enters a work location, or issue reminders to start or stop.
A personally owned device that’s used for work probably shouldn’t be tracked after hours, but this will ultimately come down to getting consent from the employee and local laws. MDM software certainly has the ability to report the device location any time, but many also offer the option to disable tracking after employees clock out. Some states have imposed limitations on such tracking. California, for example, forbids employee tracking of “any movable thing.”
In 2015, Intermex Wire Transfers employee Myrna Arias sued her employer in California after she was fired for disabling the GPS app on her company-issued phone even after she clocked out. The case was settled out of court, so the legal precedent is still murky and open to interpretation.
On-premises employee tracking may not appear to be much of an issue at first. Employers know if an employee is at work or not. But GPS is just one way to track employee movements.
Security cameras, as mentioned before, have been around for a long time as a means to monitor staff. They need to be in plain sight, preferably with visible signage that informs employees that they are being watched.
Many employers hand out Fitbits and similar fitness tracking devices to promote a healthier workplace, but these devices also track movement and location. Furthermore, they share data with at least one third party, Fitbit, which could lead to further privacy issues.
Earlier this year, reports surfaced of Amazon winning patents for wristbands that would track the movements of warehouse employees. The wristbands would communicate with equipment and vibrate if they put an item in the wrong place.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags are microchips that can be attached to a person or their belongings in order to track them. Missouri, North Dakota, and Wisconsin have prohibited employers from requiring the use of such devices.
Crafting an employee location tracking policy
When you present your location tracking policy to staff, be sure to cover the following points:
- Why tracking is in the best business interest of the company and employee
- The nature of the tracking device(s)
- What data you’ll be tracking and storing
- How the data will be used
- How the data will be secured
- Who has access to the data
- If and when the data will be destroyed
As with any collection of work data, reminding your team how it can help the business and employees record their progress is key.
Most states in the US do not have laws explicitly forbidding employers from tracking employee location.
That said, communicating with your team about the type of tracking you use and why you use it can help clear up questions they may have.
Note: The author is not a lawyer and this article should not be taken as legal advice.
About the author
Paul Bischoff is an online privacy expert and the editor of Comparitech.com, a tech services review and comparison site. He regularly writes about topics like consumer privacy, censorship, encryption, and net neutrality.
This post was updated March 2020.