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Employee Surveillance: Enhanced Security or Big Brother Working Overtime?

Workplace surveillance is not a new concept. But surveillance technology, the level of sophistication, and what the monitoring is used for has changed.

For at least the past two decades, members of the workforce have become accustomed to warnings that employers can–and do–monitor their e-mails, phone calls and voicemails.

In exchange for a paycheck and a career, we all sacrifice some level of privacy when we come to work in the morning. Now, however, employee surveillance has become an industry all its own, and the line between monitoring and spying on workers is becoming increasingly blurred. 

Employers appear interested in their staffers’ level of productivity and in reducing the access of easy distractions from work provided by ubiquitous Internet access.

Tracking Productivity… Or Spying?

Workplace monitoring is now a $200 million business and is expected to balloon to $500 million by 2020, according to a recent article from the Boston Globe.

IT technology now enables employers to receive alerts when employees log on to Facebook or another website completely unrelated to the tasks at hand. Off-site work stations can even be monitored for keyboard and mouse activity.

At least one HR consultant interviewed for the article is all in favor of more employee surveillance: “Labor is your number one expense, so being able to manage that expense and asset is incredibly valuable,” she said. To that end, many companies characterize their monitoring systems as “productivity monitoring” or “time management.”

Some employers make use of surveillance software to identify workers who are either under- or over-performing–and regard it as a strategic advantage in a global economy where more and more full-time and contract employees work off-site, and even off-shore.

Still, one boss’s “tracking” may be another one’s “spying.” Many employees find the surveillance akin to being micro-managed; or as expressions of distrust by their bosses. In an effort to work out a compromise and appeal to both sides, one workforce data firm cited in the same Boston Globe article designed a program that displays employee activities in a window that’s seen by employer and employee alike. One client that installed it billed it as a “mentoring” tool rather than surveillance.

The company subsequently reported a sharp increase in both individual productivity as well as corporate profits.

Relax, Big Brother Can Now Feel Your Presence, If Not Your Pain

Move over computer monitoring and high-tech video surveillance cameras. A Fortune article from January describes the recent installation of sensors that recorded employees’ presence (or absence) at their desks in the offices of The Daily Telegraph newspaper.

Having been installed overnight with no explanation, the sensors caused such upset among the staff that the firm was forced to remove them that same day. Management told employees that the sensors were designed to collect “environmental sustainability data” – i.e., striving for more efficient use of office space, among other uses.

There’s likely some truth in that explanation, as modular offices and workspace sharing have become more prevalent in the past few years. One manufacturer of such technology who was interviewed for the article insists that his clients are interested in monitoring their physical space; not in surveillance of employees.

However, Lewis Maltby of the National Workrights Institute is dubious, and sees such technology as possibly being installed in the name of employment efficiency, but doubling as a disciplinary instrument. Maltby says it wouldn’t be the first “bait-and-switch” of its kind in the workplace. 

The article also discusses surveillance of employee work cell phones, which can be (and frequently are) tracked using GPS technology on a 24/7 basis. Even if such tracking systems are installed to monitor sales staff who travel to clients or delivery drivers who are on long-distance routes, their use has led to numerous lawsuits by employees who find it outside the bounds of reasonable expectations of privacy.

Not a Uniquely American Phenomenon

Lest anyone think that surveillance only happens to U.S. employees, an article in Britain’s The Guardian relayed a recent decision by the European court of human rights (ECHR) in favor of an employer that fired an employee in Romania back in 2007 for using company-provided technology to communicate with both his clients as well as personal contacts.

The ruling by Europe’s top rights tribunal, based in Strasbourg, upheld the firm’s right to monitor employee communications to ensure they were being used for business purposes during work hours. The technology coincidentally happened to be U.S.-developed Yahoo Messenger. 

The point is, the trend by companies to enhance surveillance of their offices, as well as employee behavior, is distinctly heading in one direction. In an ever more global economy, it’s not surprising to hear about it happening overseas as well as stateside. What will be interesting to monitor is how much surveillance will be tolerated by the workforce. Technology will become increasingly sophisticated, but that doesn’t mean employees won’t resent it.

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