Employer -- or Warden?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

We're all rightfully concerned about the government collecting information about our personal communications, but Big Brother isn't the only one interested in snooping around. I ran into a couple of articles discussing businesses that want to do that and more in the name of enhancing employee productivity. I have no problem with this in principle: People should be free to enter contracts on whatever terms they wish. That said, a few things bother me about the trend.

First, part of this desire to monitor everything is clearly a by-product of government meddling:

"You can become your own mini-NSA," David Tucker, CEO of Australian-based Event Zero, told Network World.

Managers could see which employees are dating and which ones are seeking out their next job. "Just make sure it doesn't end up on WikiLeaks," he advised.

Generally, though, most companies are using these tools for positive ends, says Peter Bell, a management science professor at Western University's Ivey business school.

In fact, he says, most managers are using them to help workers who have steered off course.

"In Canada, hiring and firing people is a nightmare," Bell says. "It's much better to identify issues on the job and try to train people and mentor them to be more productive."[bold added]
So many firms that might not be inclined to collect data on everyone fifty times a second might feel "nudged" to do so by government meddling, limiting options for those of us who value privacy. On top of this -- beyond the clear potential for privacy violations and abuse -- is that what results in better productivity (e.g., everyone taking breaks at the same time) is based on aggregate data that may not apply to individual employees.

Another concern, especially in today's snoopy, boundary-less, TMI culture, is that companies might decide to monitor employees all the time. Oops! Too late. The second article shows that this is already happening, too:
[Tech company Buffer] provides Jawbone wristbands -- which monitor health indicators such as how much walking a person undertakes as well as sleep patterns -- to their employees, and that data is shared among colleagues in the spirit of personal improvement and productivity.

The U.K.-based company The Outside View, a predictive analytics company, also recently gave staff wearables and apps to measure their happiness [How? --ed], sleep patterns, nutrition and exercise around the clock in an experimental project.
Again, if employees sign up agreeing to this sort of thing, they should certainly be free to do so, but I fail to see how this doesn't quickly cross the line from self-improvement aid to hectoring from employers and coworkers, particularly if they disagree with your priorities or ideas about how to achieve happiness or health. That would be annoying enough coming from an employer, but it could quickly become worse with a bit of government meddling to make practically every employer feel like they must do something like this. And the government would, of course, soon offer its own "guidance" too. Yipee.

I'm not under house arrest. Spare me the ankle bracelet, or whatever idiotic "wearable device" becomes fashionable. I'll decide for myself if I need to monitor my sleep patterns, or what I do in my spare time, or whatever else isn't anyone else's business, thank you very much.

-- CAV

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