Can't Hide Your Prying Eyes

New technologies can monitor employee whereabouts 24/7, but CIOs must be prepared for the backlash.

Every Police officer's nightmare is to be wounded on the streets -- alone. So when the Orlando Police Department pilot-tested new Global Positioning System (GPS) units, which let the central office track officers' locations, you'd think the officers would have been grateful.

Gratitude, however, wasn't much in evidence during the pilot program, according to Conrad Cross, CIO of the city of Orlando. "The officers felt it was intrusive to be monitored 24/7 and didn't see much benefit in their day-to-day work," he says. The unions "raised a lot of noise" and the project was canceled, Cross says.

Many companies monitor employee e-mail and Internet usage, and Web-based security cameras are commonplace fixtures in office buildings. However, technologies such as GPS and employee badges with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags promise to take employee monitoring to an entirely new level. Today's tracking systems can record, display and archive the exact location of any employee, both inside and outside the office, at any time, offering managers the unprecedented ability to monitor employee behavior.

Although there's a business case for employee tracking, organizations that implement these technologies can, like the city of Orlando, walk into a minefield of employee morale.

"CIOs must measure expected benefits against potential problems," explains Richard Hunter, a privacy analyst at Gartner Inc. "And even then, CIOs must tread lightly if they want to avoid a user backlash."

Benefits and Risks

On the surface, tracking employees seems like an obvious way to boost productivity. Monitoring the location of truck drivers on the road, for example, allows dispatch offices to route deliveries more effectively, says Steve Vivanco, vice president of technology and marketing planning at Chatsworth, Calif.-based MobilePlanet Inc., which sells GPS and other portable devices. On-the-road monitoring can make it easier to provide roadside assistance, reduce damage claims and lawsuits, and possibly reduce goldbricking and excessive break times.

Similarly, monitoring employees in the office using RFID technology can help management quickly locate key people and keep unauthorized personnel out of secure areas, reducing employee sabotage and theft. Seen in this way, monitoring becomes an extension of other forms of in-house security measures, such as the monitoring of e-mail and the control of access to corporate computing resources.

"There's a general understanding among CIOs that the biggest security dangers are always from inside," says Bill Packer, CIO at Irwin Home Equity Corp., a lending institution in San Ramon, Calif. He notes, however, that body-tracking technologies are of questionable value inside financial firms like his. But in environments where physical security is essential, the ability to track employees using RFID and GPS could prove valuable, Hunter says.

'The Naked Employee'

Despite the potential benefits, many employees find the tracking technologies to be ominously intrusive, says Frederick S. Lane, author of The Naked Employee: How Technology Is Compromising Workplace Privacy (Amacom, 2003). "Employees don't want Big Brother staring over their shoulders," he says. "They're already concerned that they don't have enough privacy, and the new technology frightens them." Indeed, some companies are even thinking of tracking their employees' day-to-day exercise levels and caloric intake, according to Astro Teller, CEO of BodyMedia Inc., a Pittsburgh-based manufacturer of wearable body-monitoring devices.

Candice Johnson, assistant director for the Communications Workers of America, a Washington-based union that represents 700,000 high-tech workers, worries that many employers won't be able to resist the temptation to use technology to create oppressive work environments. "There are companies that limit employees to 15 minutes of restroom time during an eight-hour shift," she complains. "Employees are going to hate the idea of management being able to spy on them all the time."

Although unionized employees, such as the police in Orlando, can fight the monitoring technologies, nonunion personnel have no legal recourse in the U.S., according to James T. Bennett, a professor at George Mason University who studies workplace privacy. "Employers are assumed to own any information that employees create, including information relative to their physical location," he says.

In fact, with a few exceptions, such as video surveillance of restroom stalls, employers can gather any and all information about their employees.

"There's an incredible lack of privacy rights for employees," says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. He says employee dissatisfaction and anger will be an inevitable result of any technology that's seen as intrusive.

However, given the lack of legal restrictions, employee tracking is destined to become more common over time, says Tom Austin, a Gartner research fellow. "Social backlash may slow the growth of monitoring, but it's unlikely to stop it," he says.

This isn't the first time that CIOs have had to carefully balance the surveillance capabilities of a technology with human factors. In the 1980s and 1990s, sales force automation systems often failed because employees found them too intrusive.

"Many SFA tools are unsuccessful precisely because the sales staff perceives the software as a monitoring tool instead of as a useful assistant," says Erin Kinikin, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. She points out that some sales representatives sabotaged SFA systems by refusing to enter data and by finding ways to subvert the systems.

Under similar circumstances, it's likely that salespeople, if forced to use GPS, will "accidentally" run down GPS batteries or "unintentionally" park cars in structures where the GPS won't work. Because of the inevitable passive aggression, "companies who want to get the value of GPS or RFID in terms of helping sales should abandon any thought of using the technology to monitor who goes where," Kinikin insists.

The danger with RFID and GPS is that managers of the "command and control" ilk might overuse the tracking capability and, in the process, accidentally create an unproductive work environment. "The challenge is always to keep people motivated," explains Jack Cooper, former CIO at Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and now president of JMCooper and Associates. "If people aren't motivated and don't want to do their jobs, it doesn't really help to box them in with a lot of rules."

Making it Work

The challenge for CIOs is to implement employee-location technology in a way that maximizes its potential benefits without hurting employee morale. One way to do this is to monitor only those elements of employee behavior that have a substantial effect on profitability. For example, while it may make sense to check whether field workers are where they're supposed to be, obsessive management attention on the physical location of every employee is likely to create resentment. "If it doesn't have to do with the employee's day-to-day work, it shouldn't be monitored," advises Cooper.

It's also important for employees to realize that location-tracking technology doesn't prohibit them from having private lives. CIOs should clearly state what's being tracked and what's not and make it clear that location tracking will be inactive during off-hours. They should also clearly communicate what management is going to do with the data that's gathered.

"It follows the well-established security principle of informed consent," explains Packer. "Most employees understand that it's important for people to be doing the job that they're supposed to be doing and won't object to a reasonable system that helps verify that."

Employees are also much less likely to complain if they feel they have some level of control over the monitoring, even if it's only the freedom to check their own data. "When employees can monitor their behavior, they're more likely to see the system as something that's helping them get their job done, rather than a way for management to spy on them," says Cross.

Hunter puts it this way: "The point of the technology is to help employees to be more productive, not to make them paranoid."

James, the author of numerous high-tech books and articles, can be reached at www.geoffreyjames.com

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