ReimagineHR: A Tale of Two Employee Monitoring Programs

ReimagineHR: A Tale of Two Employee Monitoring Programs

As employee monitoring technologies move out of the realm of experimentation and into the mainstream, concerns over their impact on employee privacy, data security, and trust have become even more pressing. In a breakout session at Gartner’s ReimagineHR event in London on Wednesday, Principal Executive Advisor Clare Moncrieff elucidated the difference between the kind of employee monitoring we trust and that which we don’t. She began by asking the attendees if they agreed with the following statements:

  1. “Recording the location, actions and communications of employees is a necessary and important part of business operations.”
  2. “Recording the location, actions and communications of commercial airline pilots is a necessary and important part of business operations.”

Responses to the first statement were mixed, with about half the audience saying they agreed or strongly agreed and the other half saying they disagreed or felt neutral on the subject. On the other hand, every single attendee agreed with the second statement. What’s the difference?

One reason why the recording of commercial airline pilots was uncontroversial is that it has been a standard practice in the industry for nearly 60 years. Flight recorders (commonly referred to “black boxes”) are understood to be a normal and necessary component of air safety procedures. Their value in diagnosing and correcting problems that can lead to catastrophic accidents is unquestioned, and everyone—passengers, crew, airline administrators, regulators, and the public—understands and appreciates why they are needed.

Pilots don’t see these devices as intruding on their privacy, even though they record every conversation they have in the cockpit, because their benefits are clear and because airlines only use the information for a specific and clearly defined purpose. Data from the recorders is only accessed after an incident and is never shared or published. Black box data has never been used for purposes other than intended and there has never been a known breach of flight data security in six decades of using these recorders. Also, data from flight recorders is only one of many inputs into an inquiry, which also incorporates first-hand accounts from the flight crew.

Flight data recorders meet all the key criteria of an effective employee monitoring system, according to our research at Gartner: The purpose and beneficiary of the technology is clear and consistent, access to the collected data is strictly controlled, and employees’ voices are taken into consideration when interpreting the data. When monitoring follows these guidelines, employees are much more likely to trust and accept it.

Here’s an example of another program, also in the field of air travel, that didn’t meet those criteria and ran into serious problems as a result. In a study published earlier this year, researchers looked into the camera surveillance systems installed at Transportation Security Administration airport security checkpoints in 2011 to assess their impact on employees and their managers. In response to complaints from travelers alleging that TSA employees were stealing their belongings, the administration had installed the cameras to either catch employees who were engaging in theft or to provide evidence that they were not and thereby protect employees from false accusations.

Had the cameras been used solely for their stated purpose, the story might end there, but as it turned out, the employees’ experience of the cameras was quite different: The actual effect of the system, they felt, was to find fault with their behavior at work and punish them for it. The TSA employees told the researchers that they felt like they were being constantly seen but never noticed as individuals; in this regard, the system served to dehumanize them. Managers contributed to these perceptions by using the cameras to call out employees for minor violations of standard procedures (sometimes incorrectly).

In other words, the surveillance program ended up straying significantly from its original intent. It was used to criticize and punish employees who behaved incorrectly, but was never used to recognize or reward those who exhibited exemplary behavior on the job. The end result was that employees felt mistrusted and demoralized, so they took pains to avoid standing out or interacting with their managers as much as possible.

Comparing the TSA employees’ experience with surveillance cameras against airline pilots’ experience with flight data recorders illustrates why some employee monitoring programs are more effective than others and how much of that difference comes down to employee trust. Now that employee monitoring is becoming a well-established aspect of the workplace, by adhering to a few best practices, employers can prevent their monitoring programs from eroding that trust and damaging employee engagement and morale. For more on these best practices, Gartner for HR Leaders clients can read all about them in Talent Analytics Quarterly.