Employee surveillance is nothing new. Information workers, especially those working remotely, have for many years had employers taking screenshots, counting keystrokes, and using computer cameras to see what the workers were doing. It’s commonplace, and most affected workers get accustomed to it easily.
In manufacturing facilities, employers might use video surveillance or communications monitoring. They might also use GPS monitoring to make sure they know where employees are at all times. Sensors can check heart rates and alert employers if workers seem to be too stressed or too sleepy to do their jobs safely.
With so many options, employee surveillance can be ab important safety feature — or a serious source of conflict between workers and employers.
Do the workers know?
One of the legal issues is the difference between open and covert surveillance. Do workers realize that there are cameras focused on them? Have they agreed that their internet use can be monitored or that conversations with the boss can be recorded?
It’s usually a lot easier from a legal point of view when workers know that they are being watched. If they have “an expectation of privacy,” it’s a different kettle of fish.
So a clearly visible camera on the factory floor is very different from a hidden camera in a restroom.
It’s wise not only to make sure that workers know they are being watched, but to get their agreement ahead of time.
While making sure workers don’t have any expectation of privacy can help out in the courtroom, it may not help when it comes to workers’ feelings or public perception.
Amazon tracks workers‘ handheld electronic package scanners to identify times when they are “off task.” That’s clearly no worse than automatically counting keystrokes or tracking heart rates. But when it was revealed, it shocked the public. Workers who spent two full hours in one day off task could be fired. Legally mandated breaks are not included in the definition.
Two hours is 25% of one eight-hour shift. Many employers would consider a worker who wasted 25% of their time at work to be less than a valuable employee. But that’s not how things looked when the workers protested via TikTok.
Amazon changed the policy. Your workers might not go to TikTok and your company might not get the kind of headlines Amazon did, but you can’t assume that legal behaviors will always be acceptable to your employees.
Best practice: make sure that your surveillance has a clear safety goal, that it’s perceived as fair, and that it doesn’t end up being used for punishment.