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:
- “Recording the location, actions and communications of employees is a necessary and important part of business operations.”
- “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.
Michel Anteby, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, and Curtis K. Chan of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management teamed up on a research project wherein they interviewed 89 Transportation Security Administration employees and their managers to learn more about how these employees responded to the camera surveillance systems that had been installed at their airport workplaces in 2011. The closed-circuit television cameras were motivated by complaints from travelers about their belongings getting lost or stolen during TSA screenings, the authors explained recently at the Harvard Business Review, so the managers “decided to install cameras to catch employees in the act of thieving, or to demonstrate to travelers that theft was not occurring by their employees’ hands at the checkpoints”:
But even if managers had intended for the monitoring efforts to protect employees from false accusations, the prevalent sentiment expressed by TSA employees was that managers were watching them to control them, making sure that every single, little thing that they did was exactly and precisely as planned. TSA officers expressed the sense of constantly being seen by higher-ups. … Officers used words like “Big Brother” and “spying” to articulate how managers were monitoring them, suggesting strongly that they really did not like the feeling of constantly being seen.
At the same time, however, officers expressed that even though they were constantly seen, they were almost never noticed.
European Court of Human Rights (Hadrian/Shutterstock)
The European Court of Human Rights has found that covertly videotaping an employee at their workplace constitutes an intrusion into their private life in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. In a decision handed down on January 9, the court ruled in favor of five former employees of a supermarket chain in Spain, who were fired after their employer caught them engaging in or facilitating theft, based on evidence from surveillance cameras that had been installed without the employees’ knowledge, Dentons attorney Claire Maclean explains at Lexology:
The employees challenged their dismissals before the Spanish courts, arguing that the use of covert video surveillance in the workplace without prior notice was unlawful. These challenges were unsuccessful so they raised proceedings before the ECHR alleging that the covert video surveillance violated their right to privacy protected by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The court held that the installation of the covert cameras had not complied with the Spanish legislation on data protection. The Spanish Data Protection Agency had issued an instruction clarifying that anyone using video surveillance had to place a distinctive sign indicating the areas that were under surveillance.
The court ordered Spain to pay each of the applicants 4,000 euros in respect of non-pecuniary damage, plus court costs, but rejected the applicants’ claim that they were entitled to pecuniary damages for the wages they would have earned had the Spanish courts declared their dismissals unfair and reinstated their employment at the supermarket.
Vasin Lee / Shutterstock
Employee monitoring technology is looking more and more like the wave of the future for organizations looking to maximize their workforce’s efficiency and productivity. A growing number of vendors are now offering monitoring systems that use a complex series of badges or sensors, along with advanced data processing, to track employees’ movements in the office, their activity, their communication, and even their emotional state. At Bloomberg, Rebecca Greenfield discusses the implications of this emerging technology for employees’ privacy:
Legally speaking, U.S. businesses are within their rights to go full-on Eye of Sauron. “Employers can do any kind of monitoring they want in the workplace that doesn’t involve the bathroom,” says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute. And as long as the data is anonymized, as Enlighted’s is, some people don’t mind tracking if it makes work life easier. “It doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t feel intrusive,” says Luke Rondel, 31, a design strategist at Gensler. “It’s kind of cozy when you’re working late at night to be in a pod of light.” A majority of U.S. workers the Pew Research Center surveyed last year said they’d tolerate surveillance and data collection in the name of safety.
Research CEB conducted last year also shows that relatively few employees consider it unacceptable for their employers to collect this kind of data. For example: