Has employee monitoring gone too far?

Motion detectors, webcams and even microchips are all being used to keep tabs on workers – but where do we draw the line?

Has employee monitoring gone too far?

When workplace surveillance hits the headlines, it’s rarely good news. Whether it’s Amazon warehouses where teams are reportedly fitted with productivity-tracking wristbands (and, The Guardian claims, 74 per cent of workers are scared of taking bathroom breaks in case they miss a target) or Barclays installing electronic devices under employees’ desks to track movement, monitoring brings to mind intrusion, erosion of freedom and a creeping paranoia. Little wonder it’s not something  that normally gets openly discussed in workplaces.

A recent TUC survey revealed that more than half (56 per cent) of employees in the UK thought their boss was monitoring their actions in the workplace in some way. Thanks to new technologies that encourage employees to spend more time in trackable online environments, 70 per cent believe installing an ‘all-seeing eye’ into workplaces will become more common.

Unions, for their part, are particularly worried. “Anecdotally, this is something that keeps coming up,” says Alex Collinson, policy and campaigns support officer at the TUC, and author of the report I’ll Be Watching You. “Monitoring has been happening for years, but where you once had a sign-in sheet, people now have digital fingerprints, and there’s a concern these methods could become more invasive.” 

Because we associate surveillance with the most intrusive and obvious behaviours, we overlook the fact that it’s already commonplace. Email and web browsing history monitoring are expected in most desk-based jobs, while anyone driving professionally is probably being tracked via GPS. Meanwhile, CCTV is ubiquitous in all sorts of environments, from offices to warehouses. 

A growing market is pushing the limits of technology and, some critics would claim, acceptability. ‘Productivity tool’ Worksmart logs the hours staff work, counts the number of keyboard strokes made in an hour, records social media usage, and takes photographic ‘timecards’ every 10 minutes via a webcam, with an eye on the remote working market.

Humanyze, a biometric staff ID badge, uses microphones to conduct real-time voice analysis, contains sensors that follow where you are in the office, and charts your movements around the office with motion detectors, all with the purpose of measuring stress. Teramind – lauded in several business publications as the top tool of 2018 – uses a live analytics dashboard and livestreams of employee desktops to monitor everything from productivity to file transfers and instant messages; with a feature that also allows managers to record activity and play it back later.

Legally, there is no barrier to any of this activity – as long as employers are clear about how and why they are implementing such surveillance. “It’s generally not a good idea to take a blanket approach to surveillance or say anything along the lines of ‘we will look through your emails’,” says Nikita Sonecha, employment and data protection solicitor at SA Law. “You have got to be able to justify the circumstances under which you would take those steps.”

With a strong justification – for example, protecting  the health and safety of workers in a busy warehouse, or ensuring compliance with company internet policy – employees can be fairly phlegmatic. 

“There are a lot of professions, particularly in industries like mining, or oil and gas, who use monitoring technology to be aware of the health and safety attributes of their workforce, to see if individuals are working safely or operating machinery in the right way. This can also be important for roles that are fairly remote,” says Edward Houghton, senior research advisor for human capital and governance at the CIPD. 

“Even in the UK, we have remote workers such as carers who might not be able to speak to managers for 24 or 48 hours at a time. This can be a real challenge for people who work largely on the road, and monitoring can help them feel connected, and that their jobs are being done correctly.” 

Jeff Schumann, CEO of Wiretap – a platform that tracks exchanges across social messaging tools such as Slack and Yammer – goes further, arguing the advantages of surveillance can be significant in enabling organisations to take full advantage of talent that might otherwise go unnoticed. 

“Our technology studies the interactions employees have in public across messaging platforms, and is then able to identify the positive interactions happening among employees,” he says. 

“In large companies, it can be difficult to identify the most influential employees, but when you digitise interactions, you can see who is engaging the most, who is exchanging information with other people, and spot those individuals who ensure positive communications move from one group to another. It enables you to map out something you were never able to before.” 

On paper, that’s a suitably benign notion that simply brings additional rigour to existing appraisal processes. But once a technology has been sold into an organisation, there are very few interventions a third party can make to prevent intelligence being used for less legitimate means, such as a manager collecting data over a long period of time to build a case against a team member they dislike. 

It’s this potential to cross ethical boundaries, and the notion that once technology is unleashed it cannot be reined back in, which makes campaigners nervous. “It’s demotivating to feel you are constantly being watched and not trusted, but on a more human level it can also feel just a bit creepy, especially when you get into where the lines exist between more unacceptable forms of surveillance,” Collinson says. 

It’s no exaggeration to say monitoring fundamentally chips away at the very psychological contract of work, the intangible and often finely tuned sense of trust and fairness between an employee and their employer. As Houghton says: “The psychological contract is a means of understanding the terms of our relationship with our employer, and has been influential in helping us understand the nature of the employer-employee relationship. It encompasses things like job security, good management support and career prospects – and if it is met, it can be highly motivating. But if those terms are not met, and that trust is undermined, it can be very detrimental to an individual’s health at work. They may not feel motivated or committed, and they may then start looking for other opportunities.” 

The constraints on autonomy perpetuated by overly intrusive monitoring risk fundamentally undermining such a contract, Houghton warns. And while many platforms will argue their practices are strictly above board, there are tools that facilitate covert behaviours – such as an FAQ on Teramind’s website where the question of whether users will ‘know’ they are being tracked or not, is left ‘entirely’ up to the employer. The product also has a ‘stealth’ mode: “ideal when you want to monitor a computer full-time, without the user’s knowledge”. 

There are certain occasions, of course, where an employer may be able to monitor people without their knowledge, says Sonecha: “For example if they suspect criminal activity, extremely serious malpractice, or a breach of health and safety. Employees are often unaware of these exceptions and can be a bit funny about CCTV being used without their authorisation, but those circumstances do exist.” 

However, for the most part, UK law will find that watching an employee without their prior knowledge (and following updated GDPR regulations, consent that is freely given, specific, informed and revocable) can not only be unethical, but illegal.

“If you were in a scenario where, for example, an employer recorded a disciplinary hearing without the consent of the individual involved, this would amount to a fundamental breach of contract that goes to the heart of that working relationship,” Sonecha warns. “The employee would be well within their rights to bring an unfair dismissal claim because their boss was acting without their authorisation.” 

To avoid landing in legal hot water, an employer monitoring staff must be specific about the terms and conditions under which they are going to do so, should not infringe in any way on private time, and must be proportional in the methods deployed. This was highlighted by a tribunal in August, when two repairmen who were fired after tracking devices revealed they had been using company vans for personal use successfully sued their former employer – which had not been clear enough in its company policy about what constituted ‘business’ vs ‘private’ driving. 

Most surveillance tools are at pains to emphasise how far removed they are from the idea of the snooping boss. Humanyze, for example, says it has been ‘built with privacy in our DNA’. For Schumann, striking the balance between monitoring and intrusion is about delivering some power into the hands of the employees, ensuring they can requisition their data when they need to.

“There should be a line where people have too much power if tech lands with the wrong person – and that wrong person could be the CEO,” he says. “When companies work with us, one of the questions we ask is about what controls the employee has over their data, and what will remain private. We believe employees should see what is being built into these platforms.” 

The introduction of GDPR in May has improved the rights and protections an individual holds over their personal data, but Collinson argues legislation should go further still. “GDPR will help, but it doesn’t necessarily equate to proper enforcement – a lot of workers aren’t told their rights, so it would be good to see additional boundaries that are specific to the workplace,” he says. 

“The TUC have called for legislation that explicitly states that employers should [only] monitor people for legitimate reasons which protect the interests of workers, and, if a union is recognised, that any form of surveillance should be agreed with the representative before it is introduced.”  

Houghton, in part, agrees. “Consent relies entirely on balance in power, and we know that in organisations there is an imbalance in power – individuals may agree to surveillance because they believe their job is at risk,” he says. 

“Organisations must go further than GDPR, but I think this means proving the business benefit outweighs the risks and opportunities of this tech – having a debate where legislation should be treated as a potential outcome rather than the immediate solution.”

It can feel like 2018 is in many ways a tipping point. While most businesses’ involvement with monitoring tools has been relatively harmless to date, in the wider world there are boundaries being pushed. US tech firm Three Square Market has offered to implant microchip technology in all its employees, purportedly to help them log into work stations, open doors and use vending machines. One third of the workforce has reportedly taken it up.

In China, meanwhile, the government is building a system of ‘social credit’ that will amalgamate public and privately held records on individuals and assign them a rating based on their perceived trustworthiness. This will be an enticing prospect for recruiters.

Both examples are extreme and unlikely to be replicated any time soon. But they demonstrate the potential for surveillance to reshape our interactions with institutions. The reality is that in the digital age, the majority of people are buying into surveillance without even realising it. Accepting online cookies, revealing smartphone locations, saving credit card details: the sense of feeling watched is growing inside and outside of the workplace. But we cannot simply be passive observers of such changes.

“If people feel protected and understand why monitoring is happening, it can encourage authenticity and bringing their whole selves to work, which is a nice possibility,” Houghton says. “The big challenge is that when it comes to personal data, the boundary between our individual and corporate identities is already blurred, and in the future could disappear altogether if not handled correctly.”