Employee Monitoring: Bane Or Boon

Last year, China announced that by 2020, each one of its 1.35 billion citizens would be covered under a complex social credit scoring system. This score would be built up from the numerous acts of compliance or non-compliance performed by each person as she went about her daily work. For instance, late bill payment, smoking on trains, delayed loan repayment, use of expired tickets for travel, and driving & parking offenses would diminish the score. Low scoring individuals would suffer consequences in multiple ways, including denial of admission to educational institutions and travel restrictions. All this is achievable because China has deployed electronic surveillance across the land on an unprecedented scale. It is the undisputed global leader in electronic monitoring of citizenry, and its help is sought by several other countries while setting up citizen surveillance.

 

When news about this scheme became public, it was met with incredulity and outrage in the media. However, one suspects that many business leaders viewed it with awe and envy. This is because they themselves would probably like to keep track of their employees in a similar manner. Many of them would probably welcome some such score for potential hires too, as is evident from the gradually increasing use of public information across social media that is already being used to screen job applicants.

 

Employee monitoring has a long history. Many would argue that time and motion study on the manufacturing floor, pioneered by the likes of F.W. Taylor, was itself an intrusive practice. Going further, Henry Ford had set up a ‘sociology department’ in his plant to make unscheduled visits to the homes of employees to assess their lifestyles and provide additional input in finalizing compensation. Very often, these practices were positioned as productivity improvement measures. It is argued that Taylor’s measurements led to recommendations for planned work breaks during each shift, to help workers recover their strength and productivity. This defence continues to this day. In a recent study, Andrew McAfee and his team at MIT released their finding of technology-based monitoring of restaurant waiters. They found a small saving from reduced thefts, but a larger gain to the overall restaurant income and individual tip income. Their conclusion - employee monitoring somewhat diminishes undesirable behavior, but, more importantly, significantly boosts desirable behavior.

 

Modern technology has significantly increased the reach, while reducing the visibility, of employee monitoring. Most office workers in open-plan offices have become accustomed to constant CCTV surveillance by cameras that can be used to tilt, pan, and zoom the work area. IT departments routinely enforce policies for internet access and email filtering and flag violations (sometimes with reports) for supervisors. GPS trackers on company vehicles have become commonplace. And in cases where employees are allowed to take company vehicles home so that they can get to their daily round first thing in the morning, this monitoring extends beyond working hours. One personally knows sales staff whose smartphones have apps that track their compliance to their call routes, and even issue alerts if they stray or linger. One was surprised to see, a few years ago, the head of a college monitoring all the classrooms on a split screen in his office and zooming in, or even panning the camera, to observe teacher presence and class discipline.

 

A wide variety of tools are now available for employee monitoring. So much so that there is an ecosystem evolving around them: companies which design them, agencies which evaluate them, and consultants who aid in deployment. The power of these tools can be seen from the variety of features that they offer. A recent survey of tools being considered for 2019 included the following features, among others: web activity monitoring, email monitoring, live chat monitoring, social media monitoring, keystroke logging, and video feeds. Mere attendance tracking is too trivial to be worth a mention. All these tools produce elaborate reports that can be drilled down in many ways for insights on locations, teams, and individuals. It is safe to say that there is a little China inside many organizations.

 

One would not have liked to trade places with teachers being watched on camera by the college principal mentioned above. Indeed, most employees resent constant surveillance. And surveillance is growing. In a survey done two years ago in the US, one-third of the respondents claimed that they were under surveillance during work hours. As many as 15% claimed that they were under twenty-four hour surveillance. It is possible that many of the respondents were completely clueless that they were being monitored - so the actual percentage would be even higher. This could have only grown during the last two years.

 

Sadly, employer claims notwithstanding, those being monitored report anxiety, tension, and loss of productivity and morale. They would like to spend time away from the employer’s gaze. Sadly again, this only leads to more intense monitoring. A study of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees in the US revealed this vicious cycle. Employees became cautious in their action and speech near monitoring devices. This increased Management’s suspicion of potential undesirable behavior, leading to further intensification of monitoring, i.e., more devices.

 

To be fair, there are examples of absolutely benevolent use of monitoring too. An example comes from Humanyze, a company specializing in such applications. In one such example, they fitted the company’s employee badges with a microphone, location sensors, and accelerometers to monitor employee movement and interaction, for testing varied hypotheses like whether or not women employees get the right access, attention, and mentoring from seniors. However, such use is rare. And what is to prevent these social interaction badges being used intrusively by less fair-minded companies?

 

HR leaders have to be the spokespersons for employee dignity in the workplace. They have to advise Management to tread the fine line between watching over a company’s intellectual and physical property and protecting the morale and productivity of employees. A tough task for sure.

 

Gautam Brahma is a management consultant advising start-ups and SMEs, on strategy & operations including sales, HR & IT. He carries an experience of over four decades in the public, private and non-profit sectors, in telecommunications and IT industries. He has been an invited speaker on multiple industry forums and has been a monthly columnist on HR issues for close to two decades. Gautam is based out of Gurgaon and can be reached at [email protected]

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