Are we crossing boundaries while digitally monitoring employees?

HR practitioners feel monitoring should be indulged in within certain limits

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It is natural for organisations to want to monitor their employees in some way or the other irrespective of one is working from office or working from home.

A global study by Gartner found that the use of digital monitoring tools has increased over the years. In fact, the study reveals that the use of such technology by employers has increased from 30 per cent in 2015 to 50 per cent in 2018. The report which was released in 2020 expected it would increase to 80 per cent, that year.

However, in the post-covid scenario, when maximum employees have been working from home, the demand for employee-surveillance tools in India, as per industry estimates, has increased by 55 per cent.

What’s bothering is not the increase in usage of surveillance tools, but to the extent it is being used. These days, employee-monitoring software come with unique features to monitor employees in real time. Eighty-one per cent of such tools come with features, such as keystroke logging, where the employers are able to see every click of the keyboard of an employee. As per industry estimates, significant 61 per cent of these tools facilitate the monitoring of instant messaging, and 65 per cent come with user-action alert, where they notify the employer if the keyboard is kept idle for a specific period of time.

“If the industry and the nature of work so require, we can use such technology but with the consent of the employees.”

Paramjit Singh Nayyar, CHRO, Bharti AXA General Insurance

Some of these tools even allow employers access to the webcam, which monitors an employee by clicking pictures after every 10 minutes!

It was reported earlier in PC Magazine, that in companies, such as Deloitte and Bank of America, employees wore Humanyze badges, which were capable of tracking the movements of employees through beacons placed inside the offices. These badges also analysed the pitch of the employees’ voices, to identify whom they was talking to. This would help the employer track their movements and find out whom they were interacting with.

There is a new tool in the market, and people have named it, ‘Bossware’. It’s because, it can continuously monitor and record activity at a granular level and record the screens of users as well. What’s even more frightening is that it can be done without an employee’s knowledge.

Use of surveillance tools is rampant in the BFSI sector. But there is a need for it. It’s done to safeguard important data

“Sometimes, firms use applications that require access to employees’ mobile data. Without this access, the employees cannot mark their attendance or make use of other benefits the apps offer. In such cases, employees will always be worried that someone from the IT department has access to their personal mobile data at all times.”

Shailesh Saumya Singh, head of talent acquisition, Max Life Insurance

“If the industry and the nature of work so require, we can use such technology but with the consent of the employees,” says Paramjit Singh Nayyar, CHRO, Bharti AXA General Insurance.

Nayyar also adds, “We are a trust-based employer and at Bharti AXA, the managers have the accountability to make sure that all employees are working honestly.”

Shailesh Saumya Singh, head of talent acquisition, Max Life Insurance, also admits that his company also monitor but not with the purpose of tracking an employee’s movements but for the sake of keeping company data safe. In fact, he says that many people do not really know how the technology works and have their own assumptions.

He explains that the company keeps three areas under surveillance, but this can hardly disturb the privacy of any employee.

First is encryption of the data centre, which includes the cloud, e-mail Ids with company domain, and so on. The data centre is the area where all the company data is securely stored. Monitoring is required to ensure its safety, and the employees are well aware of this.

“Organisations may not openly admit to monitoring their employees, but in this digital era, nothing is really personal now. Managers may just ping the employees and if they do not respond instantly or do so after a long time, it does give them an indication that the employee is not at work. Even small information, such as the ‘last seen’ indicators on various messaging apps, help to monitor people. This way, indirectly, companies do keep an eye on their employees.”

Mahipal Nair, CHRO, Neilsen IQ

The second area under surveillance at Max Life Insurance, is the network, which includes the Wi-fi. “This allows access to information such as the IP address of the device being used, but this only reveals the location of the employee. In any case, the employees have provided their current and permanent addresses to the company. So, this is something that should not bother them much,” explains Singh.

Third is the hard drive of the company laptop and all the data stored therein. “That is all company data, and therefore, belongs to the firm. It is different if the employees choose to store anything inside the hard disk, which is their personal data,” mentions Singh.

Singh clarifies that these methods of tracking are not really meant to monitor employees, but to keep the company assets and data safe. “Most of this includes client details, which are the company’s asset. We cannot afford to have that data leaked or exposed to the public,” says Singh.

Surveillance tools are so advanced that they can track the typing speed, and also take pictures The objective is to align all of that data to get evaluate productivity level of the employee. This sounds ridiculous to Singh.

“It is pointless to go that far. After all, we are supposed to trust our employees. If companies do end up using such tools, they are making it pointless to have any teams in the organisation at all, because there is no trust factor,” points out Singh.

Singh draws attention to the fact that if an employee is using a mobile application, which is solely developed for internal use of the employer, then there can be a breach of privacy.

“Sometimes, firms use applications that require access to employees’ mobile data. Without this access, the employees cannot mark their attendance or make use of other benefits the apps offer. In such cases, employees will always be worried that someone from the IT department has access to their personal mobile data at all times,” shares Singh.

HRKatha tried speaking to several of the HR heads to find out what surveillance tools their companies have been using to monitor employees.

The HR head of a popular food-delivery app in India said an emphatic ‘no’, but chose not to comment further. The CHRO of another global IT firm refused to comment saying this is a sensitive issue.

It’s an irony that on one hand we talk about employee trust and outcome, and on the other hand there is increase usage of such surveillance tools.

Mahipal Nair, CHRO, Neilsen IQ, he replies, “We are strictly against such practices because we respect the freedom and privacy of our employees and the privacy laws. Those who own such systems should respect the choice, freedom and privacy of a person. Not just in COVID times, but even before that, our employees enjoyed flexible working hours at the firm. Many of them also worked from home, but we never felt the need to monitor them, because we trust them and do not want to breach their privacy in any way. ”

As Nair rightly points out, organisations may not openly admit to monitoring their employees, but in this digital era, nothing is really personal now. Managers may just ping the employees and if they do not respond instantly or do so after a long time, it does give them an indication that the employee is not at work. Even small information, such as the ‘last seen’ indicators on various messaging apps, help to monitor people. This way, indirectly, companies do keep an eye on their employees.

With everything getting digitised, people are leaving their digital foot prints behind. Nobody is really in the know of the kind of data, or the volume of information they themselves are sharing, and how it can be used. Therefore, it is only ethical for employers to monitor employees only to the extent that it does not invade their privacy. Most importantly, employees should be made aware of any such monitoring activity being indulged in.

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