In the 1974 thriller The Conversation, Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, a man who specializes in surveillance, listening in on people’s conversations in parks, hotels, offices and anywhere else. Usually he has no interest in what those who hire him do with the information he passes along until an assignment leads him to believe the couple he’s surveilling might be murdered by his client. In the paranoid world of the 70s the movie was a cautionary tale of what can be done by those who have access to what someone would consider private information.
Harry Caul was just one man and so the data he could collect was limited, no matter how good his self-built equipment was. Imagine what could be done if, say, everyone used devices that digitally collected, quantified and analyzed almost everything they do and say whether it’s at home, outside or at work.
Since the mid-2000s there’s been a concerted movement among many to embrace the “quantified self.” The concept isn’t necessarily new, just a modern spin on the notion that better, more complete metrics allow people to make better decisions. Think of it like a puzzle; Not only do you need the cover of the box to guide you, but finishing the picture becomes incrementally easier with each piece you put into place.
Mobile apps and other technological advancements have enabled this push to move from an overt one to one that simply exists, regardless of whether or not the individual has consciously opted in. Various apps will track your step counts, your location, the time spent at a particular place and more without ever opening your phone. More information will be collected when you use a retailer’s mobile app to make a payment or upload a picture. If you so choose, you upload or enter additional information and data yourself, or have your healthcare provider or other third party do it for you.
While Facebook and other companies have embraced tracking as a way to sell advertising online and on mobile devices and retailers found it was a way to effectively gauge how shoppers moved around their websites/physical stores, corporations realized employee activity monitoring was a great way to track what those workers were doing during the day. TechTarget provides a useful working definition of employee monitoring:
Employee monitoring is the use of various methods of workplace surveillance to gather information about the activities and locations of staff members.
This monitoring is done in the name of productivity. If the company can identify inefficiencies it can tighten those up, leading to increased productivity and higher profits. What are those inefficiencies they’re looking for, and what are the concerns cited by companies who have engaged in employee monitoring?
Wasted Time: How much time is someone spending on either non-work activities, or how much time are they spending using inefficient systems?
Unnecessary Errors: Is someone so distracted by other activities they aren’t paying attention to doing quality work?
Corporate Security: Are unsafe employee behaviors threatening the physical or intellectual security of the company?
These are all laudable goals. Productivity can certainly be impacted by all of them and since it is the goal of a company to make sure its’ employees are as productive as possible, putting systems in place to track those behaviors makes sense and is understandable.
Where problems begin to emerge is when this monitoring goes too far.
Let’s look at the two major ways employee monitoring is happening.
In The Real World
Las Vegas is famous for its cameras, placed around casinos to monitor both the activities of gamblers and staff to make sure the former aren’t cheating and the latter aren’t stealing. The same can be said of most retailers, where cameras are always watching everyone on the floor. If you’ve ever looked at the screens of the monitors located in the offices of either the manager or the security personnel you’ll see that as many cameras are pointed at the employees behind the registers as there are on the shoppers around the store.
A 2013 American Management Association survey found 48 percent of employers used cameras as a deterrent against theft, violence and other concerns. Far fewer – 7 percent – used it at that time to actively monitor employee behavior. As long as they have a legitimate business reason for that monitoring those companies are usually on solid legal ground, though that becomes shakier in an office environment where interactions are mostly just between employees. Audio monitoring is even more problematic since it amounts to an unwarranted and therefore illegal wiretap.
Digital access systems such as passcodes and electronic key cards are additional ways employers collect activity data on workers. These tools may be used to gain access to the building, open the bathroom or break room door and more, allowing employees access to some parts of the office while denying access to other areas. All that data can be collected by the company and matched against the employee ID to determine how often they arrive late or leave early, or how much time they’re spending away from their desks in general.
In the past, such video surveillance might have been used sporadically, whenever someone noticed an employee was actively slacking and wanted to prod them into better on-the-job behavior. And digital location data had to be analyzed more or less by hand. How that translated into worker productivity was an estimate, albeit informed one, at best. Slacking, after all, is often in the eye of the beholder while not all activity away from a desk is an effort to avoid work.
There are certain behaviors – actually using the bathroom, engaging in union-related activities and such – that are restricted, but most everything is fair game.
What’s done in the physical office environment pales in comparison, though, to what is in place in the digital one.
In The Digital World
It’s when things get digital that employee monitoring really takes off, based on the fact that everything can be quantified and analyzed. Another part of TechTarget’s definition shows the extent of the activities that are being tracked.
Monitoring methods include keystroke logging, wiretapping, GPS tracking and Internet monitoring, which includes surveillance of employees’ web surfing, email, instant messaging and interaction on social networking sites.
Essentially, anything anyone does on a corporate-owned machine – be it desktop computer or mobile device – can and will be monitored. It all stems from the notion, which is not completely incorrect even if it is overreaching, that everything someone does while at work should be directed toward the benefit of the employer. All time spent should be in service to the company and its stakeholders.
Companies have broad leeway to engage in these monitoring activities when it involves corporate equipment and servers, though those are occasionally challenged in court on privacy grounds.
Things become murkier when it involves personal devices such as someone’s own laptop or smartphone, but employers often get access through the terms of service when agreeing to use office Wi-fi or by installing keystroke loggers on a phone as part of “bringing it into IT compliance.” Other software installed by the company – sometimes without the knowledge of the individual who owns the phone – may allow them to see what apps are being installed (even if for personal use) and track the individual via GPS. They can even give themselves permission to brick a person’s device, wiping everything including personal photos and contacts when they leave the company or if there’s a suspected security issue.