Employee surveillance is becoming ever more pervasive in the workplace. New technologies make it easier to monitor employee performance and behaviour. Ian MacRae and Toni-Ann Murphy look at some of the potential problems.
Surveillance has already gone far beyond just CCTV cameras and the occasional performance review. It is now possible to monitor everything from all online communication, health and physiological information, potentially even with implants which allow the human brain to interact with computers.
But what impact does surveillance have on employee performance, morale and perceptions of employers? How would you like to have a small computerised device implanted under your skin to replace a workplace ID card?
Employee ID implants are not science fiction, a company in Wisconsin called Three Square Market already uses them. The chip allows employees to do things like opening company doors, purchasing food and logging into company computers. No ID cards or passwords necessary, just a flick of the wrist.
Violation of privacy?
Not everyone likes to be monitored however, and a recent study by Samaranayake and Gamage found the more employees felt their privacy to be violated at work, the more dissatisfied they were at work.
When employees feel like surveillance is unnecessary or too intense, they are more likely to find ways to subvert that same surveillance. They may be more likely to sabotage surveillance systems or try to find ways to trick the monitoring.
It may seem to be useful to monitor employees, especially as the tools for monitoring employees become more pervasive, more refined and more cost-effective.
Yet when surveillance is excessive it can lead to employee stress, distrust of employers and lead to suspicion within teams and within the company.
When employees feel excessively monitored and controlled by the company it tends to detract from their sense of independence and autonomy, which can then reduce their productivity.
Intrusive and pervasive surveillance can be bad for motivation and consequently, performance.
Risks of surveillance
Employee surveillance and monitoring should not be mentioned without reference to the digital data being collected.
The smallest to the largest data collection systems will be stored digitally, and are consequently vulnerable to exploitation.
Data breaches in employee or consumer data is estimated by IBM to cost companies about $1.5 billion every year.
These numbers will certainly continue to rise quickly as the breadth and scale of electronic data collection continues to grow. The more sensitive the data, the more costly and difficult the breach of corporate data was to resolve.
Companies large and small have data stolen, which can cause serious problems. Consider examples such as communications company TalkTalk, entertainment companies like Sony and even the Democratic Party have suffered massive data breaches.
Collecting data from or about employees must consider a cost-balance approach. What are the benefits and uses of collecting the data? And what are the potential costs or consequences if the data is compromised or stolen?
It should be assumed that any electronic data can potentially be stolen electronically. The benefits of collecting the data must outweigh the potential costs. And proper procedures must be put in place to deal with any eventualities in data leaks, hacks or release.
Data collection can be positive
So we have established that collecting data about employees does carry a risk. That said, there is some evidence to suggest that monitoring performance electronically can have positive effects.
There are a few important points, however, to mention. Electronic monitoring has been found to be effective when it is clear, specific and targeted at specific measures of performance. It should not be indiscriminate, it should be used for a clearly-defined and well-explained purpose.
Research into the impact of monitoring by Bartels and Nordstrom in 2012 found that when electronic performance monitoring was directly linked to rewards or consequences for performance, it was effective.
Performance was not improved when employees were monitored with no explanation, when surveillance was not tied to performance measures or rewards, or when surveillance was used for vague purposes.
Monitoring is more effective when it can be combined with a clear performance management framework and linked with employee compensation and benefits.
The nature of the monitoring and reason for it should be clearly communicated to employees. When monitoring is transparent, sensible and proportionate, it is much more likely to improve performance.
Put simply, surveillance or monitoring can be useful when used in a careful, informed and strategic way. Indiscriminate data collection without direction can create more problems than it solves.