Why data capture from employees needs to be ethical

New technologies such as virtual reality produce rich data, but how can employers capture this ethically?

Organisations collect more data than ever on employees, and emerging technologies such as virtual reality add to the richness of that data. But how can HR professionals ensure data is gathered and used in an ethical way, asks Tom Symonds?

Today’s workplaces are full of data capture opportunities, from cloud-based messaging platforms to virtual reality (VR) headsets for corporate training.

Businesses that are smart about employee and workplace data hold an ace card. By processing and analysing this data, they can identify patterns and trends, deepening their understanding of what is driving their successes and failures, and making informed adjustments.

Businesses that pursue data-led decision making and continuous improvement are likely to have a commercial edge. This is particularly important today, as businesses struggle with slow global growth, stagnant productivity levels and low levels of employee engagement.

But although many companies are rightly excited about the promise that this approach holds, it also raises a complex host of ethical questions, especially when biometric data like facial recognition and eye-tracking software are introduced.

While the value of workplace data cannot be underestimated, companies must ensure they have processes in place to handle it correctly, and principles that ensure it is being used to serve the interests of the employees as well as the organisation.

Next-level data

Most modern workplaces use a plethora of digital tools and platforms, providing opportunities to capture thousands of data points every day.

VR training can be a particularly rich source of employee data. The technology has been around for a while, but it’s now becoming more widely used for corporate training, as the hardware becomes more affordable and the software becomes both more sophisticated and more accessible.

When an employee takes part in VR training, they put on a headset and are immersed in a digitally rendered environment. Within the simulated environment, they can interact with their surroundings and practise processes without any risk.

Compared with more traditional training approaches, vendors argue that VR can reduce costs, increase the absorption and retention of information, and result in higher levels of employee engagement. But importantly, it also generates a wealth of data.

In a VR training environment, every action that an employee takes can be tracked. Some platforms can then produce a dashboard with this data, providing detailed, actionable information on both an individual and an aggregate level.

Not only does this mean that trainers can play the data back to review performance, but employers can also create a picture of their workforce’s capabilities. This can help businesses identify areas of weakness – both in terms of individual employees and the whole workforce – and arrange appropriate follow-up action, such as further training.

Furthermore, the benefits can extend far beyond training improvements; they can improve the organisation itself.

Patterns in the data may highlight an organisational or structural issue that needs to be addressed in the company. For example, the data may reveal that a particular skill set or personality type is missing from the workforce entirely, which may affect the company’s approach to recruitment. Or it could even help a company design a new plant or production line, as possible versions could be tested by trainees in the VR environment before the assets are actually built in real life.

As data analysis becomes more sophisticated in business and big data is commonly used across sectors, not just individual enterprises, companies can refine and adapt training programmes, too.

Ethical data capture

However, as organisations begin on this journey, they need to put legal and ethical considerations front-and-centre, and put in place robust procedures around data capture and processing.

It is critical that different parts of the businesses work closely together to make this happen, with legal and HR teams working closely alongside technology, IT and L&D teams. These are some of the key considerations.

Thinking through the purpose

Business leaders should think carefully about why they’re capturing data, and how they will use it in a positive way.

Corporate data should be about enabling employees rather than monitoring them; the goal should be that data is only used in the best interests of the employee as well as the business. It may be a good idea to create a vision statement that clearly articulates what the company intends to do – and what it won’t do – with corporate data.

Internal messaging 

Employees can understandably feel very uneasy about their employer collecting large amounts of data on them, and can feel defensive if they think they’re being constantly observed and assessed.

It’s therefore very important for business leaders to clearly and honestly communicate the purpose to employees, and spend time building positive messaging around new platforms, explaining the benefits, and addressing any concerns. If handled in the right way, employees should be excited about the concept and want to buy into it.

Legal compliance

There are strict rules around collecting and processing data, especially since the EU’s General Data Protection (GDPR) legislation came into force in 2018.

One of the key principles of GDPR is that a data subject (an employee in this case) must consent to the processing of their data. HR and legal teams need to work closely with tech teams to ensure new platforms or data collection methods are compliant with the legislation.

An increasing number of businesses are realising the potential of VR training, including the wealth of data that this technology can generate and the power this data has to improve the workplace.

As long as companies move forward with this in a thoughtful way and put appropriate measures in place to ensure that data is handled legally and ethically, the opportunities are immense, and employees and employers stand to benefit.

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Tom Symonds

About Tom Symonds

Tom Symonds is the CEO of virtual reality (VR) company Immerse
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