The American Management Association released earlier this year its annual Electronic Monitoring and Surveillance Survey. From using webcams to enabling spyware, the study found (surprise!) that more employers are monitoring the workplace practices of their staff.
There are lots of reasons employers say they need to play Big Brother, some of which are outlined in this online news story. The most significant reason is to ensure standards of productivity. As we do more of banking, socializing, shopping and other daily activities online, we apparently spend less of our working hours actually doing what we are paid to do. The implementation of a workplace surveillance program (assuming its well advertised to employees) is designed not so much to catch them in the act but to deter them from taking advantage of their employer.
Another reason employers conduct surveillance of their employees is to protect the company from potential litigation. If enough employees use their office computers to view porn, as one example, this can create a virtual organizational fingerprint that could leave the company vulnerable to charges of fostering a “hostile work environment.”
Heathfield also outlines reasons why companies may not want to monitor their employees as they work. For starters, a very small number of individuals actual violate company policies about shopping at work, emailing friends, or searching online job sites – and even fewer still are likely to be foolish or stupid enough to download or stream porn in their cubicles. Many companies may also not want to create an environment based on suspicion but one that fosters and encourages trust. No doubt this would enhance the productivity problem as well, since workers who feel trusted are likely to be motivated to perform well in their jobs.
What about employee rights?
Canadian research by Simon Kiss and Vincent Mosco demonstrates that in this country, unions have been slow to take up the issue of workplace surveillance. In a content analysis of collective agreements, they showed that the lack of attention to privacy protection reflected in some respects the hierarchy of trade union and worker bargaining priorities (i.e., salaries, health care, and other benefits were more important than privacy rights). They do note, however, that electronic surveillance has become a significant priority in the information and communication technology sectors, the fastest growing areas of the labour movement.
As a final note, it goes without saying that workplace surveillance is not new. The electronic practices outlined above and in the related links merely extend efforts by employers that have deep historical roots. In a fascinating article, Susan Hansen discusses the history of employee assistance programs (EAPs) in the U.S., focusing on the Ford Motor Company’s scientific and moral management practices from the early 20th century through to the present day. Through EAPs, employers provide their workers with a range of benefits, normally in conjunction with a broader health plan designed to help employees deal with everyday problems that might affect their performance in the workplace. EAPs assist employees with substance abuse problems, emotional distress, financial management difficulties, child-rearing advice and even health and fitness programming. They intervene to help correct current problems while enabling employers and employees to identify behavioural risks and their possible impacts on efficiency.
What is different about EAPs is that they do not entail “direct interference” by management but achieve surveillance objectives through a “projective assessment” of individualized factors in order to warrant heightened monitoring of employees’ personal and emotional problems. For Hansen, surveillance is more than just a form of domination and control; it is also a caring technology that helps to steer behaviour in a way that maximizes autonomy in the name of much wider organizational goals.