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The Fine Line Between Coercion and Care

Employers monitoring their workforce must balance productivity and security considerations with employee privacy and welfare concerns.
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worker monitoring a wall full of screens

Employee monitoring is an age-old practice in industrial society, harking back to manual timesheets. It has since developed in line with technology breakthroughs into a highly sophisticated process that is actively practiced by employers, and not always welcomed by employees.

Multinational professional services firm Deloitte notes the prevalence of employee monitoring in a 2018 Global Human Capital Trends article (“People data: How far is too far?”) authored by the consultancy’s human capital leaders. The article states, “Use of workforce data to analyze, predict, and help improve performance has exploded over the last few years. But as organizations start to use people data in earnest, new risks as well as opportunities are taking shape.” The opportunities include collecting employee data to address issues such as productivity and employee engagement to make better business decisions. The risks include breaching data privacy and alienating employees.

Michel Anteby, associate professor of organizational behavior and sociology at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, relates a rather chilling tale of employee monitoring. In a study he started in 2011 and reported in 2018, he tracked the experiences and resistance strategies of security screening personnel subject to CCTV surveillance at a large urban airport. Ironically, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) that employed the personnel and set up the surveillance to strengthen managerial control of employee theft and reassure the vast majority of employees that they were not responsible for theft, ended up with a disillusioned workforce that felt a sense of visibility of behavior, but a lack of management notice as individuals. This led the staff to engage in invisibility practices in an attempt to go unseen and remain unnoticed.

Explains Anteby, “Increasing surveillance made the employees feel watched in a coercive way, caught out if something went wrong, but not rewarded when things went right. So they adopted invisibility practices to stay out of sight of managers watching them on CCTV.”

The employees took two approaches. First, they practiced invisibility of behavior, which allowed them to temporarily escape the scrutiny of management by taking extended breaks, staying out of sight as much as possible physically, and when asked to move to a different gate at the airport, taking a route that took twice as much time to complete as necessary.

The second approach, which Anteby describes as “invisibility of self,” involves employees making efforts to “disappear in plain sight.” He explains, “Even if management could see the employees, they moved about under the radar, showing no emotion, nothing identifiable about their clothes or demeanor, nothing that marked them out as individuals. There were about 1,000 employees, and they were very good at this.”

Here the tale takes another ironic twist, with TSA management saying because it could not see enough of the employees, it was implementing more CCTV cameras. Anteby’s study, which was funded by Boston University in collaboration with airport security staff, ended at about this time, but he suggests the employees had developed a skillset that would continue to keep them under the radar. Anteby concluded, “The airport management was surprised by our findings, it was trying to improve the workplace.”

Coercive surveillance can also be seen in police departments, where individual officers feel surveillance by senior officers is about identifying misbehavior, rather than developing better officers. These types of surveillance can be clearly described, but the reality is that technological development has made surveillance prevalent in the workplace, yet sometimes covert. There are plenty of surveillance software vendors in the market that can provide the technology to monitor employee activity and communication, including Internet and app usage, email, messaging, computer screen recording, capturing key strokes (or the lack of them), telephone use, video and audio, location tracking with access cards, and vehicle tracking using the global positioning system (GPS).

For employers, surveillance can help firms with everything from the elimination of time-wasting practices and the setting of salaries appropriately to the protection of intellectual property and ensuring the company has the right tools and equipment in place to optimize employee performance and productivity. Surveillance can also provide information about specific employees, which is where the point of contention often lies.

With so much technology installed in business and industry, employees may not be aware that they are being tracked, perhaps through the use of electronic keycards to access elevators or offices on a particular floor, or a closed-circuit video system mounted in an office garage to identify the license plates of employee vehicles to allow for secure entry and exit. While these devices are usually installed for security purposes, they can be used equally well to track when staff arrive at, and leave, the office—covert surveillance, even it not intended as such, that will only come to light when management questions employee behavior.

Even if employees are aware they are being monitored, surveillance can damage morale, cause stress, and raise questions about privacy. According to Kate Bischoff, an employment attorney and human resources consultant as well as a senior certified professional of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the consequence of lower morale, higher stress, and less privacy is poor retention. Higher turnover is also bad for morale, thus amplifying the issue, as well as being costly and time-consuming for employers, who then must go through the laborious processes of hiring and training new employees.

So, where can the line be drawn between what Anteby calls coercive and caring surveillance? How can employees push back against employer surveillance schemes, and what are the legal parameters? These questions do not have precise, single answers and depend on circumstances.

Anteby suggests the line between coercive and caring surveillance does not depend on types of jobs, but rather on the way surveillance is carried out. He describes coercive systems as those that seek to catch employees when they don’t follow the rules. Caring systems he describes as those that provide developmental coaching to employees on how they can improve their skills.

If an employee contract includes acceptance of a certain level of surveillance, a fairly clear line can be drawn; otherwise, when employer surveillance becomes employee abuse is a moving target. While unionized employees have more push-back than others against employers with the potential to strike, this will always lead to uncertain, and sometimes detrimental, outcomes.

Even if employees are aware they are being monitored, surveillance can damage morale, cause stress, and raise questions about privacy.

The law provides little more certainty. In the U.S., federal law generally gives employers the right to monitor employees as they perform their work, but probably not to monitor them in private areas such as bathrooms and locker rooms, while state law takes a more consensual approach. Similarly, the U.K. offers guidelines rather than prescriptive measures. Minal Backhouse, managing director of Backhouse Solicitors, an Essex, U.K.-based specialist in employee law, says, “Monitoring employees is an accepted and useful tool in a well-run business. But to stay on the right side of the law, proper documentation should explain what is being monitored and why, and trust should be maintained through clear communication with employees.”

Albert Gidari, director of privacy at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University Law School, describes today’s levels of surveillance as “a technology story of normalization of invasiveness into people’s private lives,” and argues that there is a tradeoff between surveillance and life improvements such as improved communication and sharing of information.

Noting the use of the instant messaging service Slack, he says that in the U.S., the use of Slack is not seen as an invasion of privacy, but instead as a workplace enhancement. Anteby also mentions the use of shared workplace tools such as Slack, but notes that employees, particularly senior employees, often communicate outside Slack using text or phone to avoid some of their messages being open to monitoring by other staff.

Outside the office, tracking and surveillance have a long history in the transport and trucking industry. The UPS parcel delivery service, by way of example, uses computer analytics to monitor its delivery drivers and provide guidance on how to avoid wasting time and fuel on their routes.

Truck drivers are among the most accepting subjects of monitoring, and often see surveillance as care, rather than coercion. Steve Viscelli, senior fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, and a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at University of Pennsylvania, chronicles decades of technology approaches to monitoring in the trucking industry, noting early disk recording systems that could be used after the fact to observe basic information such as driving time and how fast assignments were completed. They could not be used for direct monitoring, making it impossible to decipher when a truck would turn up at a location and plan the driver’s next journey. In the late 1980s, satellite solutions emerged that could monitor trucks in real time and allow future work to be scheduled.

With many drivers joining the trucking industry as a means of gaining independence, getting away from the boss in the office, and being paid for the amount of work they do, Viscelli expected satellite solutions to have a profound effect on drivers’ desire for autonomy. However, he says: “I was wrong. Most truckers didn’t mind. For conscientious workers, monitoring backed up what they were doing and could show if they had a problem.” Other technologies packed into solutions provided instructions, perhaps what drivers had to pick up next, enhancing the earnings of drivers that are paid by the mile.

By the late 1990s, these systems, also known as Qualcomms (as they were based on Qualcomm chips), dominated big fleets. However, they could be ‘gamed’ to underreport driving hours in electronic logs required by the U.S. Department of Transportation, a situation that was not tenable as fatigued drivers caused more accidents.

Truck drivers are among the most accepting subjects of monitoring, and often see surveillance as care, rather than coercion.

Viscelli describes GPS as the ‘new frontier’ of monitoring, as it tracks trucks when they are moving and when they are at a location, helping both employers and employees reduce downtime. Forward-facing video is also finding favor with drivers as it helps to reconstruct accidents and can show plainly that a car, rather than a truck, was at fault, which is most frequently the case, says Viscelli. Less popular are driver-facing videos, and most recently, computer programs that use videos to watch drivers’ eyelids to see if they are micro-sleeping or fatigued. That said, Viscelli says, “Experienced drivers already take monitoring in their stride, and it will become ubiquitous once safety benefits are clear and documented.”

While questions continue to be raised about the rights and wrongs of employee monitoring, it appears likely they will be swept aside by employers with increasing technological ability to gather more information, leaving employees with little choice but to accept, sometimes reluctantly, that workplace monitoring is all part of the deal.

*  Further Reading

People data: How far is too far?, Deloitte Insights 2018 Global Human Capital Trends,

Anteby, M., and Chan, C.K.
A Self-Fulfilling Cycle of Coercive Surveillance: Workers’ Invisibility Practices and Managerial Justification, Organization Science, Vol. 29, No. 2, 2018

Viscelli, S.
The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream, University of California Press, 2016

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