Who’s watching the baby?

Employers could soon be cursing Lynette Scavo from the hit US television series Desperate Housewives. The programme showed Scavo, a mother of four, using a webcam link to check up on her child’s nanny while she was at work.

Does this sound like something that could only happen in Desperate Housewives? Well, it’s not. Crib cams, or nanny cams as they are sometimes called, have been used in Australian nurseries for several years and are becoming increasingly popular in the US. The thinking is that a mother returning to work and putting her baby into a nursery will feel more comfortable if she can use a webcam to check on her child during the day.

But, is this something the average UK employee will be requesting when returning to work after having a baby? Mandy Laurie, a partner in the employment team at law firm Dundas & Wilson, thinks it could soon be commonplace. “I think it’s a matter of time,” she says. “It will take off quickly and become widespread.”

Dundas & Wilson has already had several blue-chip clients asking for advice on the issue, although none have actually introduced the measure yet. However, Louise Hendry, associate solicitor at law firm DLA Piper, says: “It is not something [our] clients are asking about at the moment.”

Encouraging parents to return

With the extension to maternity rights coming into force in April next year, enabling women to take up to nine months’ paid leave when they have a baby, employers are keen to tempt women back to work as soon as they can. Laurie thinks a nursery webcam could help entice women back into the office. “I think it’s another way to encourage women to come back a bit earlier, and it will give them a bit more reassurance during that initial period,” she says.

Andrew Powles, people policy manager at financial services company Prudential, disagrees. “It is certainly a different way of tackling the issue of a parent returning to work after the birth of their child and the fear of leaving them at nursery,” he says. “However, I don’t think it will encourage a parent to return to work earlier, and there are probably better family-friendly approaches an employer could take. For example, flexible working arrangements that allow the employee added opportunity to make short-term adjustments.”

Powles says Prudential has no current plans to introduce crib cams. BT conducted a trial of crib cams for staff a few months ago, but dropped the scheme after mixed feedback from participants. Some other organisations say they would consider introducing them if an employee requested it. “We would be open to the idea,” says Tim Pie, spokesman for HSBC. “It is not something we currently offer or have been asked to offer, but we don’t see a problem provided it didn’t interfere with the person’s work.”

The webcam being a distraction and hindrance to productivity would be a major concern for any employer. “Unless handled very carefully, I imagine a webcam could potentially be rather off-putting for the returning employee, and a bit distracting for their colleagues,” says Powles.

Any employer who decides to install weblinks to nurseries would have to extend their internet policy and set out exactly what they considered to be reasonable access on the part of the employee. That information would have to be disseminated clearly to employees. “It may be that the employer says people could access the webcam at lunchtime or during set periods during the day or a certain number of times each day,” says Hendry. “The employer would need to set out clear rules.”

The policy would have to stipulate what behaviour would not be tolerated so that an employee could be disciplined if necessary. Managers would need clear guidelines about acceptable usage so that they would know if disciplinary action was needed. Otherwise there could be inconsistencies in how employees were treated, with some managers being less tolerant than others. “Some managers might be happy to have a woman accessing the webcam several times a day, whereas another might not,” says Laurie.

Monitoring the movements of employees brings into force various legal obligations and employers need to be mindful of CCTV surveillance and employee monitoring legislation. Hendry says employers have to consider data protection and human rights legislation and would need to carry out an impact assessment to ensure their monitoring actions were proportionate. “You have to balance the purpose of the monitoring against the intrusion of the monitoring into the employee’s private life,” she says.

Both parents and nursery workers would need to give consent to the monitoring, be aware of why it was happening and how the collected data would be stored, used and for how long.

How secure is the link?

Another key data protection issue employers have to consider is whether or not a weblink is sufficiently secure. The fear is that other employees or external people could gain access to the link. Laurie says the threat of paedophiles gaining access has to be considered, and employers would need to ensure their technology was as secure as possible and their policies very stringent in case anything like this occurred. “If anything were to happen, how far would the employer be held vicariously liable?” asks Laurie.

At the moment, discussions are mainly about mothers having access to webcams, but fathers might also decide they want webcams too, and it could be discriminatory if only offered to women. Then there’s the rest of the workforce. “Will you get other workers saying all the perks are for mothers and they want a webcam too to watch their dog or elderly dependants?” says Laurie.

This potential for litigious action may turn employers off the whole idea. But refusing to provide a webcam link for an employee who requests it could also land an employer in hot water. A woman who feels her needs as a working mother are not being met by her employer might lodge a grievance of inflexibility on the employer’s part. The fact that the technology is cheap to buy and install would possibly count against the employer should the case go to court.

What might get employers off the hook if they didn’t want employees making use of webcams is the nurseries themselves. Although some UK nurseries do have webcams, most don’t and would resist the practice. “It’s one thing to get a webcam for a workplace nursery, but it’s another for parents to find a nursery that would enable them to use one,” says Laurie.

What to consider

  • Who will access the webcam, how and when?

  • Is consent given by all involved?

  • How secure is the technology?

  • Has your internet policy been amended and clearly understood?

  • Do managers know how the system will work and what is acceptable usage?

  • Is there any infringement of data protection or human rights?

Comments are closed.