As firms adopt more sophisticated ways of keeping an eye on what you get up to in the office, Ian Wylie asks what has happened to the notion of trust between worker and employer
Saturday September 24, 2005
Richard Chang didn't know he was being watched. He didn't know his employer had hired investigators to access employees' PCs and take fingerprints from glass water bottles around the office. He didn't know there were linguistics experts dissecting the grammar in every memo, email and letter.
He didn't know he was on a list of 600 "suspects". And he didn't know that when he was called to what he thought was a routine Tuesday meeting he would spend the next two and a half hours being interviewed.
What his employer didn't know was the tragedy that was to follow. When Chang left the interview, he returned to his desk, wrote a suicide note, climbed onto a balcony on the fifth floor of the atrium and jumped to his death.
At the inquest last July, the coroner recorded a verdict of suicide but laid no blame on Chang's employer, Abbey, or security firm Kroll for his death at the bank's Triton Square headquarters, near Euston station in London.
Perhaps, suggested the coroner, Chang should not have been left alone following the interview, but Abbey's covert surveillance - into who had sent two anonymous malicious documents to bosses - was perfectly acceptable.
Welcome to the world of work where employers are free to invade our privacy at will and where each email we compose, website we visit and fag we smoke is recorded. And with every monitored keystroke, the bond of trust between employer and employee is weakened.
Prying bosses are no 21st-century invention. Henry Ford's "sociological department" visited homes of employees to determine whether they gambled, drank or sent money to foreign relatives. Punchcard systems and in-store cameras have been around for decades.
But digital technologies that make it possible to capture, store and search more data with greater ease and secrecy mean employee privacy is on the endangered list.
Three-quarters of large companies monitor employees' email, reckons the American Management Association. More than a third track keystrokes and time spent at the keyboard. Half store and review employees' computer files, while 55% retain and review their employee's emails. Tesco, Marks and Spencer, Sainsburys, B&Q, Boots and Homebase are among the employers named by the GMB union for compelling some workers to wear electronic tags that calculate how long it takes to go from one part of the warehouse to another. Such devices could also be used to monitor how long they spend in the toilet. Location-tracking devices in mobile phones ... the list grows by the week.
But, then again, privacy is a commodity we are happy to trade in other areas of life. We will gladly hand over home addresses, telephone numbers and credit cards to Tesco in return for a few Air Miles.
"We don't really care about privacy," says Carsten Sorensen, a lecturer in information systems at the London School of Economics and author of The Future Role of Trust in Work. "We'll give retailers anything they want, even if it means suffering penis enlargement emails for ever."
And at work, there are rewards for conceding privacy. All contracts of employment include an implied term that employers will provide a safe place to work. After 9/11 and 7/7, employees take comfort in CCTV. In the US, the introduction of drug testing has been welcomed by many employees who believe their factories and offices are now a safer place to work. Post-Enron and WorldCom, the monitoring and storage of emails defends us against possible litigation.
In some professions, monitoring and surveillance is actually welcomed. Police officers rarely turn off their radios - they want colleagues to know their location should they need back-up. Solicitors are happy for their hours to be clocked - they bill by the hour. The rise of the BlackBerry pocket computer is due, in part, to the wilingness of senior and middle managers to trade privacy for the freedom to check their emails while out of the office.
But, warns Sorensen, the technologies that protect us are the very same bits of plastic and software that can be used against us. "The same technology that helps us create virtual organisations across time zones can also be used by old-style command and control bosses to micro-manage us," he says.
There is no point asking if your employer is watching you. Take that as a given. Anyone in your IT department will tell you that sending an email is no different to sending a postcard. The real issue is trust. Can I trust my employer to watch me for my benefit?
Trust is already in short supply. More than half of London workers polled by consultants KPMG last year said they lacked trust in their bosses. In another survey, this time of 1,100 employees across the country, four out of 10 workers told researchers from human resources consultant Mercer they did not trust senior managers to be honest with them.
Trust is more than a touchy-feely "nice to have" thing. Author and consultant Robert Levering, who has spent the past 25 years of his career visiting hundreds of employers and interviewing thousands of employees, says trust is the key component to productivity at work. You might enjoy your job and have a laugh with your coworkers, but if you do not trust the people you work for, you won't want to be there.
Sample the atmosphere in a call centre if you want to witness a workplace without trust. Most call centre operators have such low negotiating power that they are forced to surrender all privacy. As Michael Blakemore of Durham University reported in a study published last week, the sophisticated technological infrastructure of call centres makes them an ideal environment for the micro-monitoring and managing of employees. Under the guise of quality control, everything an operator does can be recorded, filmed by CCTV or logged in databases: all conversations, the duration of conversations, timings and durations of meal and toilet breaks, even personal searches when entering the premises.
Nor is it just trust that suffers. Studies have shown that workers who are monitored suffer more stress-related illnesses such as depression, extreme anxiety, exhaustion and strain injuries.
Legislation to protect us is still playing catchup. The information commissioner published a code of practice for employers in 2002, setting out his views on how employee monitoring can comply with the Data Protection Act. But it is not legally enforceable and there are no specific sanctions for a failure to abide by the code. Assistant information commissioner Philip Jones says no enforcement notices have been served to date.
Contrast that with the Australian approach. When the Workplace Surveillance Act comes into effect in New South Wales next week, it will outlaw unauthorised surveillance of employees using technologies including video cameras, email and tracking devices. The new laws will make it an offence for an employer to take part in any form of covert surveillance unless they can prove they have reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.
Back in the UK, Sorensen says it is time employers and workers' representatives had a proper debate about privacy and trust. He points to Microsoft, where managing director Alastair Baker says he is happy that the head office car park in Reading, Berkshire, is empty most Friday afternoons. Why? Because he says he trusts that his staff are either out with customers or looking after their work-life balance - and because he knows the company has processes that cultivate and protect that trust.
As workers become more mobile and work becomes more fragmented, the issue of trust will become more important. If employers are to do a deal on privacy and trust, they must, says Sorensen, be willing to negotiate our consent, give us access to the data that is collected on us and generally make us feel in control of the technology.
"Trust is very easily lost," warns Sorensen. "And once it's gone, it's very difficult to get back again."