Watching Workers: Where's The Line?

Counting keystrokes might be called for in a data entry context. But tracing the location of a company-issued smartphone during a worker's off-hours isn't going to fly.
Employers may be within their rights to monitor workers, but those rights have limits and repercussions. Employers often find that watching workers is necessary, but they need to watch their step as they do so.

The issue surfaced at Harvard University recently after revelations that administrators searched 16 faculty email accounts last fall to find the source of leaks to the media about a prior cheating scandal.

Harvard sociology professor Mary C. Waters told The New York Times, "I think what the administration did was creepy," she reportedly said, adding, "this action violates the trust I once had that Harvard would never do such a thing."

[ Don't treat your workers like they're zombies. Read Google Vs. Zombies -- And Worse. ]

There's something charmingly naive about Prof. Walters' indignation, given that computers are instruments of self-surveillance and that those with the power to search through other people's data have shown little willingness to deny themselves that capability.

Cue Claude Rains as Captain Renault in Casablanca: "I'm shocked -- shocked -- to find that surveillance is going on in here."

In the context of social media, monitoring isn't yet the norm. Gartner last year said that fewer than 10% of employers monitored employees' use of social media websites. But the research firm predicted that percentage will reach 60% by 2015.

There's some hope that privacy rights have not been completely dismantled: Last summer, the National Labor Relations Board indicated that employers can't prohibit employees from using social media to discuss worker rights. More broadly, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals just curbed the power of border agents to seize and search digital devices, power that previously trumped Fourth Amendment protections.

Privacy still has a pulse but the reality is that employees and managers need to consider their words and online posts carefully. The question employers must deal with is how far they should go to collect information about what workers say and do.

San Diego State University professor of management Amy Randel said in a phone interview that employee monitoring really revolves around questions of fairness. "What employees think is inappropriate will be partly determined by what employers have said on the subject," she said.

Randel says that when employers disclose that email messages will be monitored, and when they provide a clear rationale for doing so, employees tend to accept the situation. It's a matter of managing perception and expectation, she says.

Clearly at Harvard, poor administrative communication about diminished privacy during legal inquiries collided with a sense that academics are somehow a more privileged class than mere employees. But there's also the fact that the legal status and the social understanding of email remain are unsettled.

Unfortunately for employers and workers alike, there's no level of surveillance that everyone agrees is appropriate for every situation. Monitoring a worker's location, to assure efficient package delivery for example, fits certain business models. Monitoring employees at Dunkin Donuts reportedly reduced employee theft. Counting keystrokes might be called for in a data entry context. But tracing the location of a company-issued smartphone during a worker's off-hours isn't going to fly. And with so much work happening on non-work devices, the scope of what can be monitored may be too limited to bother.

There are a lot of uncomfortable issues here that have to do with employer-employee power dynamics. In industries where there are plenty of workers who are more or less interchangeable, employers can probably be more heavy-handed about watching the troops. In industries with highly skilled workers, technology for example, a corporate culture that embraces Big Brother is unlikely to help recruitment and retention (unless perhaps it's part of the company culture and modus operandi, like at Apple).

Employers also need to consider whether surveillance is consistent across the company or whether certain levels of employees or management are exempt. Employee monitoring applied unfairly or punitively may cause more problems than it solves.

Employee monitoring may inform management but it won't improve management.

"As more and more work is being done online and companies try to cut costs, some companies are looking at monitoring as a way to replace middle management," said Randel.

There's no right answer here. Every company faces different challenges. Employers and employees should strive to have a relationship based on trust. "There is research evidence that if you trust employees, they return that trust," said Randel.

Nice work if you can get it.