I’ve been doing so much research on workplace monitoring recently for our September HR technology issue of Workforce, that honestly I’m afraid to write anything else on this document because I technically have no privacy rights at work.
There are some crazy devices to monitor employees and employee productivity. There are hats and helmets in China that measure brain waves! That’s wild!
This story also got me digging into the history of productivity monitoring, which led me to Frederick Taylor’s book “The Principals of Scientific Management,” published in 1911. According to the Economist, the corporate American of the early 20th century totally ate it up.
An excerpt: “Taylor proposed that managers should scientifically measure productivity and set high targets for workers to achieve. This was in contrast to the alternative method, known as initiative and incentive, in which workers were rewarded with higher wages or promotion. Taylor described this method as ‘poisonous.’ ”
I’m no expert on the history of workplace monitoring. I’d guess that even before 1911 someone, somewhere was doing something like that. However, this provided good context on when the scientific theory of productivity monitoring became mainstream.
This history of workplace monitoring research spree also led me to a lot of repeated cultural references. George Orwell’s “1984” was published in 1949, and it famously coined the phrase “Big Brother is watching.” Now, the term “Big Brother” is now commonly used to describe government or corporate surveillance and has come up in many of the stories I’ve read about workplace monitoring.
Interestingly, that reference only seems to apply to one end of the spectrum.
Employers are also anxious about being monitored, only it’s not Big Brother who’s doing the snooping; it’s their employees. Our legal blogger Jon Hyman recently posted, “Protecting Your Business From Being Omarosa’d: Workplace Recordings and the Law.” This post focuses on the legality of wiretapping and employees’ monitoring employers in the workplace. Here’s an excerpt:
“With the proliferation of iPhones and other smart devices, most employees have a high-tech, high-clarity recording device in their pockets. Thus, you should assume that every workplace conversation you are having with an employee is being recorded.
“How do you protect your business against the possibility of employees using these devices to gather evidence against you?
“If you do not have a policy against employees recording conversations in the workplace, you might want to consider drafting one. You never know when an employee is going to try to smuggle a recording device into a termination or other meeting.”
My first reaction: If an employee is gathering “evidence” against an employer for something like committing an actual crime, creating a toxic environment or discriminating against/harassing employees, right on! Keep on wiretapping! Sorry, corporations, now you know my respectful opinion toward whistleblowers, who I believe are brave, strong people.
Of course many employers are doing fine and they’re just nervous about their privacy. Just like employees! That’s what I find fascinating about this conversation on workplace monitoring — both sides may feel this paranoia of being watched. I wonder what power either parties have in that respect.
One of my sources, Jeffrey Dretler, partner at Boston law firm Fisher Phillips, had some interesting insights related to the legality of employers monitoring its workforce that are relevant to this. He made the point that, per the law in the U.S., employers have the right to monitor, only in many places it’s illegal to do so without getting the employee’s consent first (Hyman also mentions this legal consent landscape and the one-party versus two-party consent laws in his blog, FYI). The idea is that as long as an employer tells a potential employee what it intends to monitor, the employee can agree and work there or not agree and find another job.
This poses a challenge for privacy-concerned employees who can’t bring a claim saying they want to work at a company but not have their data collected. “As more and more companies start to collect and use this kind of data it becomes harder and harder for employees to find a place to work that doesn’t do it,” he said.
I don’t mean to claim that I can make some definite statement about how either side can remedy their privacy concerns. I’m just aware that many organizations are collecting employee data and monitoring, and, based on what I’ve read, that’s only going to get more common.
My message for employers is simply, think about how your company feels about its own corporate privacy and have some sort of sympathy how employees might feel about their individual privacy. Hyman is right — what devices can do now and how technology is moving forward means that it’s easy for anyone to record a conversation. Looking at privacy concerns as a one-sided issue isn’t enough.
- “Wearables in the Workplace and the Dangers of Staff Surveillance” (Financial Times)
- “Employers Are Monitoring Computers, Toilet Breaks — Even Emotions. Is Your Boss Watching You?” (The Guardian)
- “Big Brother Goes Digital” (The New York Review of Books)
- “Is Constant Corporate Monitoring Killing Morale?” (NBCNews)
- “The Promise of AI and Productivity” (Talent Economy)
- “Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Workplace Surveillance” (Good&Co)
Andie Burjek is a Workforce associate editor. Comment below or email email@example.com.