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Access Cards Do More Than Just Admit Employees—But They Don’t Know That

One researcher recommends that employers establish consistent policies and put them in writing.

September 16, 2011
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Companies “use radio frequency identification workplace access cards to do more than just open doors,” generating privacy concerns, according to a new Rand Corp. study.

The data gleaned from the cards is sometimes linked to human resources records or medical records, but employers don’t necessarily disclose that to workers, according to the study of six companies of at least 1,500 employees each by Rand’s Edward Balkovich, Tora K. Bikson, and Gordon Bitko.

Companies can monitor such things as whether employees misreport their hours. Even though radio tags “make it possible to observe the movements of any employee all the time,” the Rand report says, “none of the companies (studied) communicates to their employees that data collected with access cards are used for more than simply controlling locks.”

Balkovich says that he found a range of behaviors in the study. Some companies reviewed access records to find out if employees were actually reporting their hours correctly, in the case of a dispute. In other situations, the records were reviewed to determine who might be a suspect in a theft case.

Balkovich says that although storing and accessing information about employees’ whereabouts is not necessarily illegal or inappropriate, companies ought to establish some consistency in their policies and put them in writing. “It benefits the corporation to have thought this through in advance,” he says. “You don’t want to make up policy on the fly.” If companies don’t have these polices written down, he says, and a law enforcement officer asks for data in a crunch, the manager may not know how to handle the request.

On top of that, turnover on a company’s staff may mean that the policy changes over time if it’s not communicated to new managers and employees.

“You ought to make your employees aware of what they’re doing with the information,” Balkovich says. “This really stands out in contrast to what people have reported about the policies about monitoring e-mail or telephones. They’re not aware they’re monitored with these access control cards.”

Bill Larkin, vice president of workforce management solutions for Kronos, says that radio frequency identification tags can indeed by intrusive. But, he says, they sometimes work in favor of employees by crediting them with hours worked that they may not have written down in a manual system. Employers need to let employees know how the records are being stored and used, he says. “Most of the good companies that roll out any of these workforce management solutions start communicating with employees way before the solutions take effect.”

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