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Is Responsible Employee Surveillance Possible?

November 21, 2022 Digital Workplace
Chris McClean
By Chris McClean LinkedIn

By now, most of us are aware of how our employers, devices, government agencies, home automation systems and various service providers are tracking our behavior down to the minutes and seconds for their subsequent dissection and analysis. Large tech firms and academics are exploring how to understand and track the emotions our facial expressions convey as they’re captured on camera. Forays into virtual environments and experiences under the metaverse umbrella promise new ways to track our body language, tone of voice and other biometrics. And few of us can completely segment our work, personal, home and school devices from each other, resulting in a growing risk that data collection practices are stepping across unclear personal boundaries.

The term “surveillance” carries sinister connotations. Yet we may feel reassured by security cameras in a dimly lit parking lot or when our bank alerts us when criminals attempt fraudulent transactions with our credit card. These kinds of watchful eyes can improve safety, security, fairness and wellbeing — if done right.

But when it comes to employers, when does responsible employee monitoring cross the line into unwelcome surveillance? What are the risks and harms that come into play when executives aren’t careful with these decisions?

The Not-Too-Distant Future of Employee Monitoring

We should all feel a sense of urgency when it comes to establishing norms for monitoring employee behavior, because advancements in technology available for this kind of data collection and analysis are showing no signs of slowing. For example, while big tech firms seem somewhat unclear about their long-term interests in emotional analysis tools, the UK Information Commissioner felt compelled enough to warn companies against using such technologies, because, the deputy commissioner said, “we’re aware of quite a few organizations looking into these technologies as possible ways to make pretty important decisions.”

Meanwhile, as metaverse experiences and environments start to weave their way into work environments, the European Data Protection Supervisor warned about these platforms’ ability to monitor “physiological responses, emotions and biometric data, such as a person’s gait; facial expressions; eye movements; vocal inflections; and vital signs in real time.”

But it’s not just the new types and amounts of intended data collection we need to address. Many of these monitoring capabilities also bring with them the possibility of collecting information beyond the intended target, especially as these tools infiltrate our homes. Employees around the world have complained that webcams used to monitor their behavior during work hours may now capture their bedrooms, living rooms and even their families as pandemic work-from-home policies remain in effect. And these monitoring tools may be more powerful than people realize. Consumer Reports found that certain doorbell video cameras are also recording audio and in some cases capturing conversations from the sidewalk up to 30 feet away from the front door.

Related Article: Why Employee Surveillance Software Could Do More Damage Than It's Worth

What Are the Risks and Harms?

To categorize every perceived overreach of employee monitoring as simply a breach of privacy prevents a more nuanced discussion about specific policies and legitimate concerns. Listening to these concerns can be very helpful for moving forward. To have a more fruitful conversation, we can categorize privacy considerations in terms of data collection, data control and data use.

For data collection, questions may be related to the type of data collected and methods of collection, including which devices are in scope, whether monitoring extends past work hours, and what protections are in place to guard against overreach. For data control, typical questions relate to who has access to the data, how it’s protected, whether it’s ever shared (or sold!), whether employees can see their data, and how long it’s stored after they leave the organization. And for data use, questions center on whether any data is used for reasons other than for what it was expressly collected, such as whether data collected to help employees use their time better might later be used to penalize employees with lower performance metrics.

Related to privacy, employers who monitor employee communication could be seen as inhibiting protected speech, such as conversations about unionization. The General Counsel of the U.S. National Labor Relations Board directly warned against this behavior in an October 2022 memo, saying, “It concerns me that employers could use these technologies to interfere with … employees’ ability to engage in protected activity — and to keep that activity confidential from their employer.”

Beyond privacy, monitoring programs can also raise concerns related to employees’ mental health and wellbeing, as simply the idea of being watched can have psychological impacts. A study by the American Psychological Association found that employees who said their employer monitors them were much more likely to say that they feel tense or stressed out at work (60%, compared with 35% percent who say their employers don’t monitor them) and were also much more likely to say their workplace negatively impacts their mental health (40% compared to 22% of those who say they aren’t monitored).

While these infringements on privacy and mental health are likely going to be focal points for any backlash against monitoring, there are additional, indirect implications worth considering. For example, could monitoring programs unfairly favor certain employees by making it easier for more tech-savvy staff members to “game the system” for better performance reviews? There might also be longer-term implications, like if the combination of surveillance concerns and inability to game the system gradually convinces more experienced but less tech-savvy employees to prematurely leave the organization.

It's helpful to think about all these issues as neutral areas of consideration, rather than necessarily risks or harms. There are many ways to handle things like privacy and mental health in ways that promote employee wellbeing, satisfaction and other ethically positive outcomes. The harms aren’t necessarily because employees are being monitored, but that they’re being monitored in ways they don’t understand, don’t like, don’t consent to, or don’t know about until after the fact.

Related Article: It's Time to Take Another Look at Employee Monitoring

Toward Responsible Employee Monitoring

The difference between surveillance (which typically indicates suspicion of inappropriate or criminal behavior) and monitoring largely comes down to intent and focus. Certainly organizations are likely to have environments, assets and processes that are high-risk enough to warrant true surveillance to ward off thieves and criminals. A key question is whether the potential losses that such programs are mitigating are greater than the costs relating to employee dissatisfaction and possibly resignation. More importantly, does this kind of surveillance violate any ethical values your organization professes, such as employee satisfaction and personal wellbeing?

To establish a program of responsible monitoring that doesn’t violate employee expectations or ethical values:

  • Establish and clear purpose for any monitoring. For example, make it clear that these efforts are for the protection of corporate assets and to further employees’ own career goals, such as performance improvement or better work/life balance.
  • Develop policies and programs with diverse contribution. Make sure you have a range of people representing the various cultures, personal demographics, and corporate functions that will be affected, so monitoring policies are as fair as possible.
  • Be clear about what’s in and out of scope. Let employees know exactly what data is collected and how, how it will be stored and controlled, and how it will be used. Just as importantly, be clear about what data won’t be gathered and what uses of the gathered data are prohibited.
  • Continue to solicit input and facilitate discussion. Give employees an easy way to ask questions about the monitoring program and provide feedback about how it may affect their mood and performance.
  • Protect employees who choose to opt out. Make elements of your program optional as much as possible, and make it clear that employees who choose to opt out will not be penalized in any way. If anything, the program should be beneficial enough that employees will want to participate.

None of these steps are simple. And the ongoing evolution of monitoring capabilities will require continual reviews and updates of your plans. Individual policies and even general philosophies about employee monitoring can’t predict how technology will change the discussion in the next several years, therefore it's critical to maintain alignment as much as possible with corporate and organizational values, which are less prone to fluctuation.

About the Author

As global lead for digital ethics at Avanade, Chris McClean is responsible for driving the company’s digital ethics fluency and internal change and for advising clients on their digital ethics journey. Prior to Avanade, Chris spent 12 years at Forrester Research, leading the company’s analysis and advisory for risk management, compliance, corporate values, and ethics.

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