WHEN Mary Williams reports to work as a reservations sales agent for United Airlines in Los Angeles, she knows that her supervisor will listen in on her telephone conversations, making sure that she uses key sales phrases and doesn't spend too much time with each customer. But Ms. Williams hadn't realized that her gossip was being monitored too - until her supervisor threatened to discipline her for using foul language. ``When I explained that I used this language between calls, my supervisor wrote a report saying that I gave her a hard time,'' Ms. Williams recalls. ``Then I told her I was going to complain to the American Civil Liberties Union, and she said she'd tear up my file if I didn't take the matter any further.'' Ms. Williams has since reported the incident to the ACLU and testified before the California Legislature.
Mary Williams is but one of an estimated 4 to 6 million employees whose performance and behavior on the job now come under the scrutiny of electronic eyes. Using technology that has only become available within the last five years, corporations aim to boost productivity and prevent crime - particularly computer crime, which by some accounts costs American industry $1 billion a year.
The crucial difference between the new high-tech supervisors and the old-fashioned human kind is that electronic surveillance can be done without a worker's knowledge. The ACLU charges that this is an invasion of privacy. ``Employers are learning more about employees than they need to know,'' says Karen Ringen, administrator of the ACLU's Project on Privacy and Technology. ``This has incredible potential for abuse.''
And employees speak of unbearable stress. ``You see people around you on the job crying,'' says Williams. ``A lot of people quit because of the pressure.''
According to Dan Sheehy, manager of media relations for United Airlines, ``We're looking for our reservations clerks to be friendly and to do their job in as short a time as possible - taking no more than 3 minutes on each call.'' He asserts that sales have gone up since the monitoring system was installed.
New computer software enables employers to set production quotas, count a typist's keystrokes, and root out people who are too slow. Employers can install software that flashes subliminal messages to computer operators, such as ``work faster.'' Systems that link computers and telephones can be used to identify the parties being called from each extension - be they personal friends, business competitors, or union organizers.
Video cameras, once installed only for security purposes in elevators and lobbies, have become smaller and less expensive. As a result, they now guard computer rooms and supply closets and in some cases peer at employees even when they're off duty.
Although the ACLU and other experts concede that reported abuses of electronic surveillance equipment are rare, they cite some ominous examples:
In March, nurses at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Md., discovered a hidden camera in the women's locker room. Hospital administrators said the camera was put there to watch an employee thought to be stealing narcotics.
A nurse's aid at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Waco, Texas, was fired last year for sleeping on the job because a videotape showed him leaning back in his chair. The employee, who said he had not been sleeping, was denied the opportunity to defend himself.
A reporter for a Chicago daily newspaper was composing an article when he received a message on the computer screen from his editor saying that he didn't like what was being written, according to Karen Nussbaum, executive director of 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women.
Executives at some corporations have been caught bugging the offices of colleagues and subordinates with tiny, hidden radio transmitters, according to Rob Muessel of Information Security Associates, a Stamford, Conn., firm that detects electronic eavesdropping devices.
``What concerns me is not that the problems are widespread, but that the trends are up,'' says Gary Marx, a sociology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who contributed to a report on employee monitoring that the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) will release this year.
Particularly worrisome to Dr. Marx and others is that no federal law governs surveillance on the job. The Bill of Rights protects a citizen's right to privacy from the government, but not from corporations.
To ensure employees some degree of privacy, the House of Representatives is considering legislation to restrict electronic monitoring. A bill sponsored by Rep. Don Edwards (D) of California would require companies to use a beep tone to notify staff members when their phone conversations are being tapped. Rep. Robert Kastenmeier (D) of Wisconsin will conduct hearings this month on electronic surveillance in the workplace, and he is drafting a bill that would outlaw surreptitious video monitoring on the job.
Several states, including Georgia and Massachusetts, already have laws that restrict the use of video cameras to observe personnel. California is considering legislation, sponsored by state Senator Tom Hayden, that would prohibit companies from using software programmed with subliminal messages without workers' consent.
Meanwhile, labor unions are negotiating contracts that would require companies to tell employees when they are being monitored. IBM and AT&T are among the handful of corporations that have instituted such policies on their own.
Employers should also address the broad ethical and legal questions surrounding electronic surveillance, says Sanford Sherizen, a computer security consultant based in Natick, Mass.
``There is a tendency to use technology simply because it's there,'' says Mr. Sherizen, who also contributed to the OTA report on employee surveillance. ``But the important questions are, what kind of information should be collected, who owns it, and what right do we have to refuse to allow information about ourselves to be collected?''
He adds that the United States is behind other countries on issues of privacy. ``We do things here that wouldn't be done abroad,'' he says. ``In Europe, workers are monitored in groups rather than on an individual basis. Europeans have a clearer sense than we do of where to draw the line between evaluating behavior and protecting privacy.''
But the United States may be learning. Federal Express adopted the European system 2 years ago, after customer service agents complained that rigid quotas on the amount of time they could spend on each call were forcing them to rush customers off the phone. Ever since the company stopped scrutinizing individuals and started monitoring departments as a whole, officials report, productivity has reached an all-time high.