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Employee Surveillance Is Bad… Period


Illustration showing employer looking over employee at desktop with big magnifying glass
Image: Feodora -
This is the simplest way I can think of to put it: Employee surveillance is sneaky and wrong, and no enterprise should do it or want to do it.
We’ve been covering the technologies of employee surveillance quite a bit recently on our sister website, No Jitter. A recent post by tech consultant J.R. Simmons of COMgroup delivers the kind of critique you’d expect from a post titled, “Helpful Analytics or Orwell’s Management Tools?” He pretty much demolishes the argument that managers can derive any meaningful conclusions from an aggregation of discrete actions taken by an employee within a collaboration technology platform. In another example, in a post on a recent virtual event session, I cited a discussion in which several tech company executives pointed out the challenges of enforcing any sort of distancing mandate whose violation might be flagged by a video/AV system in a conference room.
And yet too often, the tone of discussions that I hear around this topic is one of resignation, as typified in this post by tech analyst Dave Michels of TalkingPointz. Dave says employee monitoring tools “can certainly provide valuable insights, and employee wellbeing is commonly cited as a benefit.” He goes on to issue the obligatory note of caution before concluding, “Advanced workplace monitoring was inevitable.”
I don’t think it is or has to be. Clearly, an enterprise has to be able to protect its resources and do forensics on its systems, and this activity may involve cataloguing and correlating employee behaviors and taking appropriate action. Embezzlement, for example, is not an activity that any employee should expect to be able to pursue in private, with no ability on the part of the employer to document and act against. Similarly, an employee attempting to access documents or resources to which they don’t have permission should be questioned about why they took those actions.
But these types of monitoring are essentially passive: Some enterprise monitoring system notices an anomaly, and investigating or troubleshooting points toward some employee behavior. That’s very different from an aggressive, proactive regimen of monitoring the totality of every employee’s behavior every hour that they’re logged onto enterprise systems (as well as drawing conclusions about the time spent not logged on).
It’s antithetical to everything I know about working with and managing people, while also being a person myself. Some of the talk about surveillance seems to suggest that if we can just fine-tune the technology enough, we can not only know for a fact what every worker is doing all the time, but that, from there, we can fine-tune the people so they do more of what their bosses want them to do.
Simmons offers a radical idea at the end of his post. If you want to know what your employees are up to, trying talking to them. If you want to know if they’re getting their work done, check and see if the work is done or not, and if it’s up to your standards. Employee surveillance that goes much deeper than that is mischief-making and unworthy of any enterprise that claims to respect its employees.