Surveillance in the workplace how far is too far

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We’ve been under surveillance in the workplace for longer than we might actually realise. Even back when all we had were punch-card clocking in machines, it was a means of keeping an eye on our whereabouts. The tech and processes have evolved significantly in the past few years and have brought with them an entire new set of laws, regulations, best practices and standards for workplace surveillance.

Surveillance in the workplace is now so common that we barely think about it. But we should. Comfort and familiarity with technology doesn’t mean that it is always benevolent.

For your safety and security

The most common reason given for workplace surveillance is the safety and security of employees and customers. This is why almost almost all business premises will have some sort of closed circuit TV system. To operate a CCTV system in a business property, businesses have to comply with local and national laws and regulations. These are most often communicated in an employee’s induction or presented in their employee handbook. In cases where consent isn’t obtained and the surveillance policy isn’t explained, employees are generally entitled to take action against their employer, at the very least requesting clarify on what the data will and will not be used for. But in most cases, business CCTV is above board.

Data security and protection of property

Another common reason for installing surveillance equipment in a workplace is to protect the business from damages arising from theft and other unauthorised use of company property assets such as data and commercially sensitive information. This type of surveillance is more complicated than plain old CCTV because there’s an implication that the employee’s conduct, as well as their safety, is being monitored.

A growing area of employee surveillance is vehicle tracking. This is especially common in businesses that deliver and with businesses that employ people to do site visits, such as engineering firms and consultancies. Vehicle tracking straddles the line between protection of property and productivity tracking. If an employee deviates from an agreed route, or is tracked far away from their intended destination, this could be a sign that they are in danger. Or it could be a sign that they’ve stopped off for a toilet break.

Employers need to agree with their staff in advance of conducting this kind of surveillance exactly what they will and will not be tracking. For example, will they turn off the tracking if the employee uses the vehicle for personal use as well as business? According to surveillance consultancy Online Spy Shop, who provide a range of surveillance solutions including spy cameras, trackers and listening devices to the private and corporate sector;  “many businesses now use GPS to track company cars, to ensure maximum efficiency and productivity, and also to ensure that rights to use company cars (and claim fuel expenses) are not being abused.”

There are grey areas and employers need to be mindful of respecting privacy while protecting their assets.

That said, most employees tend to feel comfortable with this level of monitoring and in some cases, they see it as just another part of the job.

Productivity tracking and learned helplessness

Wearable tech has made productivity tracking seem almost like a fringe benefit, rather than a form of surveillance. Who wouldn’t want a free Apple Watch? Sleep tracking, activity tracking and even hydration tracking have all been trialled to varying degrees of success. The problem here is that while employers may use this tech to help their people perform better at work, they run a very real risk of infringing on their privacy. And worse still, some employees actually come to rely on this level of surveillance to perform in their roles. Without the information their employers are gathering on them, employees can lack certainty in their own performance.

This is just one way in which workplace surveillance can cross the line from necessary and helpful to creepy and authoritarian. On the whole, workplace surveillance is a legitimate and mostly reasonable business process, but the more we innovate and the more we want to know about the people we employ, the closer we get to making unreasonable demands of their privacy.