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The Limits of Tracking Tech in the Workplace


Photo via Digital Trends

While the quaint phrases “punch in” and “punch out” live on in the lexicon, the now-vintage image of employees sliding cards into a timeclock has given way to fingerprint scanners, facial and voice recognition systems, key cards loaded with monitoring tech, and GPS and biometric tracking software installed in company vehicles and mobile devices. Surveillance technology is becoming so commonplace that PC Magazine now puts out a guide for “The Best Employee Monitoring Software” and the site GetApp posts the cavalierly-phrased list: “5 Employee Tracking Apps for iPhone to Spy on Your Staff.” It maybe goes without saying that employers should be cautious and diplomatic when introducing surveillance software, biometric data gathering devices, and other kinds of tracking technology.

As employee monitoring becomes increasingly sophisticated by the year, human resources and legal departments have to move quickly to address legitimate privacy concerns. The Atlantic reported last year on the “murky… legal landscape around tracking employees,” which might reasonably make people shy about surveillance technology. Amazon’s patent for employee tracking devices, for example, made many negative headlines recently. Several lawsuits have already been filed in Chicago under the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), which “limits how companies can collect and use biometric data of individuals,” reports Bloomberg.

Part of the problem is that “biometric timekeeping vendors are selling systems to employers without discussing the legal obligations that go with the technology.” The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) issued a guide for employers in January for the implementation of employee monitoring programs. These should all include “clear policies, effecting training, implementation strategies” and “tactics for handling sensitive employee information.” Avanti software adds guidelines like, “Don’t surprise your employees with a biometric clock.” Transparency is key. Employers, they note, should give workers the opportunity to voice concerns and should clearly show how personal data will be kept secure.

As with every rapidly progressing technology, legal limits will likely always trail behind the limits of the tech. One company, Humanyze, “an MIT spinoff,” reports Digital Trends, “aims to overlay biometric analysis and analytics over the traditional employee badge technology.” Their ID badges are equipped with RFID, near field communications (NFC) sensors, Bluetooth, “an infrared detector capable of tracking face-to-face interactions, an accelerometer, and two microphones,” writes Digital Trends. The microphones “creep frighteningly close to Big Brother territory,” but the company assures potential users that “they don’t have the ability to record conversations. Instead the mics measure tone, volume, and speed, along with potentially monitoring stress.”

The last function listed for Humanyze’s tracking tech points to one possible employee benefit of tracking programs—the potential for reducing employee burnout and health-related issues. Workers with elevated heartrates or blood pressure, for example, might be encouraged to take a break, take a walk, meditate, or take other de-stressing measures. Other benefits “range from accounting for employees in emergency situations to protecting employees and employers from unfounded complaints” by creating an evidentiary trail. Whether or not benefits outweigh the risks—including the risk of hacked devices—employee tracking tech has inevitably expanded far beyond monitoring internet use and reading employee emails, and it will inevitably continue to do so.

The tactful implementation of a monitoring program involves multiple considerations, not the least of which, writes Susan Heathfield at The Balance, “is the potential damage to a work culture that fosters trust and employee commitment and motivation.” As Manny Avramidis, senior VP of the American Management Association, puts it, “99% of the population will be fine without electronic surveillance; fewer than one percent of employees are causing the damage that allows all of the bad stuff for employers to kick in.” Heathfield recommends that employers have employees sign off on company security policies, “then, take a deep breath and—trust them.” Her advice might sound just a little too altruistic to many security experts.

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