Thursday, September 28, 2006

Big Brother Goes High Tech

I've been reading this morning about the high tech ways that employers are monitoring their workers, and it's really astounding how many effective methods tech savvy companies have to keep tabs on their employees. Annalee Newitz, at New ScientistTech, has a pretty thorough overview of the surveillance options currently available to bosses, that will tell them just how you're spending your working hours, as well as let them know some of what you're doing in your off-time. These methods are all legal, at this point, and most states don't even require that employees be informed that they are being monitored. Some of those methods include reading your email (even the personal ones), watching everywhere you go online, closed circuit television (even in bathrooms), hidden global positioning devices in company vehicles, and hidden microphones. Some companies are even going so far as to track down what employees say from home in online forums and blogs, on their own time, on their own personal computers.

Newitz spends a fair bit of time examining the results of this kind of big brotherism in the lives of some employees. One such person posted a complaint on a forum anonymously, and the company went to court and subpoenaed Yahoo! for his real name, and then fired him for what he had said on his own time, from his own computer, without disclosing his identity. Others have lost their jobs for blogging, despite it not being a work-related activity. (I assume for blogging things of which the employer disapproved. I can't imagine anyone would get fired for kissing up to the boss online.) According to Newitz, some of this blog surveillance could be happening even before a prospective employee gets hired:

David Nachman of background-screening company HireRight based in Irvine, California, agrees with Wickre that a job-seeker's blog might affect their chances of getting hired. Traditionally, HireRight has only provided criminal record checks and checks on qualifications and experience, but Nachman says interest in online activity is growing. "We don't offer this service yet, but it's absolutely already happening. Employers are going to blogs and social networking sites when hiring."

In effect this means that online monitoring may be starting before employees even sign their contracts. While some will find this shocking, many tech workers express a kind of fatalism. "There are always ways to find out what individuals are doing, and sometimes that results in people getting fired," says IT administrator John Gilbert. "Everywhere I've worked, there's never been any privacy."

Okay, I haven't processed this enough to have a well thought out response, but I do have an immediate gut reaction. I totally get employers wanting to make sure that employees are actually working when they're being paid to do so, especially with the plethora of potential distractions that are just a click away. The Meow, for example, is a compelling temptation, I am sure. I understand companies wanting to make sure that employees are not spending all their work hours shopping online, surfing porn sites, using the company phone to call Paris, running "Nigerian inheritance" email scams on company computers, or any number of other activities that are a waste of company dollars and employee time, are illegal, or would reflect badly on the business. I even get employers asking employees not to post defamatory statements on their blogs. (If I had an employee who was spending his off hours publicly criticising me as an employer, I would probably assume it was better for us both if we found someone who would be happier doing his job than the disgruntled blogger was.) I'm not oblivious to corporate motivations in this scenario.

I'm striving to be fair, here. However, now that looking "on the one hand" has been accomplished, I'm feeling at liberty to turn my attention to the other. Even having given all this understanding and forebearance to the bosses, my initial reaction to these kinds of tactics is not very enthusiastic. I hope that employers (and the legal system), step lightly in this employee surveillance dance that they are doing. Trying to control the thought lives and off-hours personal expressions of employees is hardly conducive to a productive work environment. Not only are cameras in the bathroom, hidden microphones, and personal emails going public a shocking invasion of privacy, I think they're just plain bad policy.

Employers make more money when they have a stable, loyal, contented workforce, with low turnover, and high levels of experience. Big brother your employees too much and they will not hang around long enough to make you any money. I suspect if you are worried about how your employees are spending their time, it would be better to set performance standards for them, rather than watch them every minute. If they're doing their job to your satisfaction, what does it hurt if they spend a few minutes of each day reading Instapundit? Better to have them content and productive, than burn them out by insisting that every moment of every day be spent in intense work-related concentration. Beyond that, some of this surveillance could bring about the very thing you want to prevent--bad online publicity. Over-monitoring and refusal to allow any personal comforts (such as personal email that's truly personal) are activities begging for that same online criticism that the paranoid companies who instigate such tactics are trying so hard to avoid.

Like I said, I haven't thought this through enough to have a really well synthesized response, but I do know that I'm glad that I don't work for a paranoid employer (unless you count my husband grilling me to make sure I've had enough to eat every day.) I'm also glad my husband works for a small company that actually trusts its employees. He's been there for almost twenty years, and he's by no means alone in his employment longevity. The turnover rate is extremely low. That relationship could not have lasted that long if both he and his boss weren't pretty satisfied with the arrangement. There is no such monitoring going on at his office, and I know Ked would be decidedly upset if there were. (I know such systems are supposed to be hidden, but I'm pretty sure he'd know. Since he's the computer guru there, I don't think they could have set up a system to monitor online activity without him.)

I'm curious, though, how the rest of you respond to the concept of companies monitoring what goes on at the office, both pro and con. Actually, I'm also curious what you think of employers monitoring off-hour activity too. Is there anyone who can defend that one? I can't think of a single positive to the notion that an employer would fire a worker because of an anonymous posting to a chat forum, but maybe someone else has a defense of that position. Anyway, if any of you have something to contribute on this topic, I'm all ears (well, eyes actually, but you know what I mean.)