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The Dangers of Employee Monitoring

By Jason Bader


I was recently rolling though my LinkedIn feed and ran across an interesting post.  The Economist posted a short video highlighting an article they published about employee monitoring and some of the innovative applications being deployed today.  As always, I perused the comments section to take the temperature of the online community.   Reactions varied from cautious optimism to downright Orwellian fear of Big Brother.  Being somewhere in the middle, I was more interested in the affect on leadership development and employee motivation.  Does employee activity monitoring make it more difficult to build relationships the true frontline troops?


After viewing the post, I went on to seek out the article “There will be little privacy in the workplace of the future” posted on The Economist website.  In the article, they highlighted an organization named Humanyze who is creating data driven solutions for improving workplace productivity.  Essentially, the product will monitor communications with the outside world such as email, phone and text.  Furthermore, with the device worn on the employee, the system can monitor activities such as time spent at the desk, moving around the office, interaction with other employees and even personal breaks.  Although the system uses an anonymous identifier for individuals, there is some fear that this data could be manipulated down to the individual.  The intent of the product is to help managers understand work flow and create solutions for better productivity. 


There are several other examples of this type of monitoring emerging in the corporate world.  Hitachi sells a product in Japan called a “happiness meter” to help combat the very real problem of employees working themselves to death.  In one example, Hitachi found that morale went down when younger workers spent more than an hour in a meeting.  I can relate to that.  A little closer to home, Amazon has recently applied for 2 patents on a wrist band for warehouse workers.  Again, the intent here is to monitor work flow so that management can remove barriers to productivity.


Today, many of my clients in the distribution industry use some form of employee monitoring.  CCTV cameras in warehouse areas are very common.  These are primarily in place to deter theft or other shenanigans.  The most common one I see is vehicle GPS monitoring.  Like any program of this nature, there are perceived positives and negatives.  In a survey I conducted a couple of years ago, many pointed to positive aspects such as better visibility to delivery times, reduced reckless driving habits and improved routing capability.  On the negative side, driver morale waned, and trust was diminished.  One participant pointed out that customer service was challenged because drivers felt that they needed to rush through their deliveries in order to get back on time. 


As I have mentioned in the past, I am a product of Generation X.  My generation, by in large, hates being micro-managed and monitored.  I have a very difficult time trusting that employee monitoring systems are being designed for the greater good.  Sure, I can see some potential benefits in the right situations.  I like the customer service aspect of visibility to the delivery route.  I like the opportunity to remove barriers in the workplace.  These goals work in tandem with the servant style leadership approach I follow.  Unfortunately, I can see these programs driving a wedge between employee and manager in the areas of trust, creativity and empowerment. 


Communication and trust are the cornerstones of developing relationships with the employees we serve.  Barriers to communication, such as detachment and a lack of active listening, will derail the mission of any organization.  As I look deeper at these monitoring programs, I see less eyeball to eyeball communication and more reliance on data and artificial intelligence.  The leader is no longer seeking solutions through meaningful communication with the team.  Rather, they are relying on a very impersonal method of understanding their workforce.  What happened to asking people to give you an opinion? 


As I have mentioned in the past, I believe that the greatest untapped asset in our companies is the collective creativity of the people who work with us.  As leaders, we must constantly strive to find ways to give our employees a way to contribute.  All of them come with life experiences and the ability to recognize inefficiency in our workplace.  Perhaps they haven’t exercised those problem-solving muscles in a while, but they all have them.  When team members feel that management doesn’t trust them, all desire to contribute to the good of the organization goes out the window. 


Trust and empowerment go hand in hand.   Unfortunately, I think that some managers are a little confused about the dynamics of this relationship.  If I trust the employee to make good decisions, I will empower them to handle more situations.  While this certainly might be the case, I believe that more powerful results occur when this statement is turned upside down.  When the employee trusts their manager, the more confident they will become in their decision-making skills.  As leaders and managers, we can provide all the tools necessary for a successful outcome.  If our employee does not trust that we will support and encourage their direction, they will never be motivated to take responsibility for the outcome. 


Please don’t walk away from this article thinking that I am technology or data adverse.  I am a self-professed data junkie.  Gathering data to make positive improvements in the bottom line is one of the cornerstones of my practice.  For all that love of data, I have a greater love for developing people.  While I can recognize that employee monitoring data analysis can point out areas for greater human productivity, I never want that to encroach on the opportunity to develop the best team possible.  When evaluating systems like this, ask yourself if they build credibility with your team or send folks to greener pastures.  Good luck and I look forward to being of service in the future.


About the Author:

Jason Bader is the principal of The Distribution Team.  He is a holistic distribution advisor who is passionate about helping business owners solve challenges, generate wealth and achieve personal goals.  He can be found speaking at several industry events throughout the year, providing executive coaching services to private clients and letting his thoughts be known in an industry publication or two.  He can be reached at (503) 282-2333 or via email at jason@distributionteam.com.  You can find additional resources on his website: www.thedistributionteam.com

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