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Are Companies Going Too Far in their Tech Surveillance?

New tools allow companies to put their workers under the microscope like never before.
By: | July 22, 2019 • 3 min read
Close up stock image of a young asian woman sitting down at her desk where she’s surrounded by 3 large computer monitors displaying out of focus images of people as thumbnails; crowds; graphs & scrolling text.

Meet “Chet.” When Chet woke up at 6:58am today to check his work email on his mobile phone, his employer noted it. On his way to work, Chet stopped by his favorite coffee shop and, while there, accessed the shop’s free Wi-Fi—his employer noted that, too. Upon entering his office building, a Bluetooth device in his ID badge connects to a sensor nearby, which tracks his movement at work throughout the day. On his computer, his employer not only monitors his web traffic but also tracks how many emails he sends and where he sends them. At a meeting that day, Chet can open an app on his phone that records the meeting and provides an analysis of participation. Software on Chet’s computer takes regular screenshots of whatever he’s working on so his employer can keep track of how he’s spending his time.

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Chet’s not a real person—he’s a fictional character created by editors at the Wall Street Journal as part of a package of stories on tech surveillance. However, in the near future, Chet’s typical workday could become the national norm.

Employers in the U.S. have greater legal latitude to monitor their workers than in many other countries, particularly in Europe. And companies don’t always have to tell workers what they’re tracking, either. The WSJ piece cites a 2018 Gartner survey which finds that 22% of employers say they collect “employee-movement” data (such as that gathered by Bluetooth-enabled ID tags made by vendors such as Humanyze, which are designed to help companies measure collaboration and teamwork among employees). The survey also finds that 17% collect work-computer usage data, 13% collect employee fitness data and 7% monitor the text in employee emails.

Read more of our HR Analytics coverage here.

These capabilities are being driven not by just advancements in tech but by recent findings by the likes of TrustSphere, an analytics firm, which found that teams with low turnover tended to have a diverse mix of internal connections throughout the company and externally, while teams with higher turnover had stronger relationships outside the company and weaker relations with their internal colleagues. The WSJ cites McKesson Corp., which wanted to know why some of its teams had higher turnover than others. It worked with a people analytics firm to examine data on the sender, recipient and timing of over 130 million emails from more than 20,000 U.S. employees to see what it could find.

Companies are also increasingly sifting through texts, Slack chats and, in some cases, recorded and transcribed calls on mobile devices, the WSJ reports. They want to know which teams are most productive and why, whether their employees are productive, which ones are most influential and which are flight risks.

All this monitoring could exact a price, some warn.

“There’s what’s legally right and what you need to do to maintain trusting relationships with your employees, and they are not always the same thing,” Stacia Garr, co-founder of workforce research and advisory firm RedThread Research, told the WSJ.

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Some employees are dodging the surveillance by utilizing the BYOD trend: One worker profiled in the story, a UX designer, says she often carries a personal phone and laptop along with her work-issued ones to ensure her private communications stay private. “Data is so valuable that I don’t like to give it away for free, no matter who is trying to take it or access it. That’s really what it comes down to,” she told the WSJ.

Although tech can be highly useful for helping workplaces become more productive, old-fashioned managerial techniques shouldn’t be overlooked, either. As former Google CHRO Laszlo Bock, now the CEO of an employee survey company called Humu, told the WSJ: “You don’t have to hook every employee up to an MRI to find out how to make them work better.”

Andrew R. McIlvaine is senior editor at Human Resource Executive®. A Penn State graduate, Andy also spent two years in the U.S. Army prior to attending college and attained the rank of sergeant while serving in the Army Reserves. He can be reached at [email protected]

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