Can employees be monitored ethically?

As per HR leaders, there is a need to monitor employees in a hybrid working model

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All around the world, the sense of mistrust amongst employers seems to have risen, ever since the pandemic struck. A small survey conducted in October, 2021 revealed that almost a third of the employees in the US, (about 32 per cent) were aware that their employers had installed employee monitoring or surveillance tools to track their day-to-day working activity. The same survey conducted in April 2021 revealed a smaller figure, that is, 24 per cent. In fact, a developer of employee time-tracking software in New Zealand, has reported a three-fold increase in sales in the last two years.

With remote working becoming a norm, the urge in employers to track the activity and movement of their employees using such tools has risen. The HR leaders HRKatha spoke to in the IT industry feel that tracking employee activity is not a very new trend. After all, the industry has been following and managing distributed workforces for decades. Therefore, organisations putting such employee-tracking tools in place is definitely not unheard of.

Speaking to HRKatha, Anil Gaur, CHRO, Akums Pharmaceuticals, does admit that the need to monitor employee activity during remote work clearly exists. “As an employer, I do have the right to check on my employees during work hours, to see how much time they are spending on various activities,” asserts Gaur.

“The IT industry is also dealing with moonlighting, which further enhances the need to monitor employee activity”

Anand Talwar, HR leader

“The IT industry is also dealing with moonlighting, which further enhances the need to monitor employee activity,” adds Anand Talwar, HR leader and former CHRO, ITC Infotech.

Gaur shares how in his previous company, he tracked the activity of employees on the Internet. The company used to track the websites the employees visited and how much time they spent on each website.

Another way Gaur monitored employees was by tracking their mailing activity. Though the content in the mails was not tracked, the schedules of the employees, the number of meetings they had in a day, the amount of free time they enjoyed and the frequency of mails to any particular person during the day was kept track of.

This kind of monitoring helped the company gauge the productivity of employees.

“Monitoring employees in such a way is not unethical at all,” feels Gaur. He may actually have a point there, since the privacy of the employees is not really being breached. More so because the heads of departments inform the employees that they are being monitored. Although there was some resistance initially, the management was later able to take them into confidence and convince them, says Gaur.

Talwar reveals that at ITC too it was once proposed that the company should install an employee-monitoring tool to record the mouse strokes and keyboard activity of employees. However, after some trials, Talwar himself found the exercise unfavourable. “We got a feedback from employees that they felt they were being treated as school going kids,” Talwar recalls.

“As an employer, I do have the right to check on my employees during work hours, to see how much time they are spending on various activities”

Anil Gaur, CHRO, Akums Pharmaceuticals

The age old system of monitoring whether the employees logged into the company server was, however, followed. Employees working from home had to log into the company server and it was possible to see when employees logged in and for how many hours.

However, Talwar adds, “Being in the IT industry, where most employees are software developers, it was easy for them to find loopholes and ways to fool the company”.

It is Talwar’s opinion that there is no real need to track the activity of employees. In fact, “as an organisation, we should move to an output-based performance management where instead of the number of hours taken to complete the work, it is the satisfactory outcome that should be given weightage. “Indian companies should move to outcome-based performance review,” says Talwar.

There is always a challenge, as Sharad Sharma, CHRO, Pramerica Life Insurance, rightly points out, when it comes to some enabling and supporting functions involved in the backend transactions whose outcome cannot be really quantified. “The performance of those in the sales or recovery departments in the insurance sector can be tracked by their numbers, but not of the other backend and supporting roles,” asserts Sharma.

“Monitoring of enabling and supporting functions through outcomes is still a challenge” 

Sharad Sharma, CHRO, Pramerica Life Insurance

Gaur shares that Akums is working on streamlining the measurement of outcome- based reviews for the accounting folk, but the work is still in progress.

Most HR leaders agree that there is a strong need to bring innovation into the monitoring of employees either through technology or processes, since the old or existing practices can be manipulated and employees can find loopholes in the same.

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