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Staff surveillance: To do or not to do?

Spare a thought for the Formula 1 drivers of the world. Sure, they seem to earn a reasonable wage. Sebastian Vettel is currently scraping by on $50 million a year. The combined salaries of the top 10 drivers is more than the GDP of some small countries such as Nauru and the Marshall Islands. So financially they seem OK. In terms of travel, they visit a minimum of 20 different countries throughout the year with all travel expenses covered while flying on exclusive charter flights or in first class. I can think of worse travel arrangements. Then there are the occasional perks. Attendance at exclusive events with the world’s elite. Presidents wanting to meet you. Members of the opposite sex attracted to you.

Why would I possibly want to spare a thought for the 22 men who have the opportunity to put “Formula 1 driver” in the box next to occupation on their tax return form?

One simple reason. Their employers don’t trust them.

How do I come to this conclusion? In most organizations, as soon as any monitoring or surveillance system is put in place in the workplace, the immediate assumption from civil liberty groups, unions, and possibly even employees is that the big boss sitting back in his leather chair with his feet up on the mahogany desk smoking cigars is watching a battery of monitors to keep an eye on the employees because they don’t trust them. If a boss watching a couple of monitors feels like surveillance, then think about the surveillance a Formula 1 driver is under.

Formula 1 cars contain up to 300 sensors. There are up to 2,000 telemetry channels. The performance of some 10,000 unique components are analyzed by a team of over 30 engineers at the race track and another larger team of engineers at the team’s headquarters. Each team can collect up to 11 terabytes of data per car over a full race weekend. Teams run simulations during races to predict expected lap times, which drivers are expected to meet. Technicians talk about looking two hours into the future and trying to predict what position they will finish the race in. Plus there are the multitude of cameras on the circuit and on the car.

The drivers can’t really pull into the pits and tell the team boss that their lap time was a little slow because the brakes were fading. The team will know exactly what error the driver made moments after he made it. The drivers are expected to drive flawlessly and match the lap times the computers predicted. Forget the fact that the computers are not flesh and bones sitting in the cockpit of a vehicle travelling at over 300km/h where decisions have to be made in real time. You only get one chance and lives depend on the decisions you make.

So how does all of this relate to resellers across the world?

It all comes down to employee surveillance. Should you or should you not? Is it acceptable to install video cameras in the workplace and use other monitoring tools to analyze what your employees are doing?

Ethics and communication

My example of Formula 1 says that, despite paying employees stratospheric wages, they monitor, literally, every breath they take. I don’t necessarily think it should be taken that far, but a reasonable employer, communicating to all employees about the surveillance in place, should not threaten employees. To a certain extent it would be reasonable to think that some of the surveillance is done for the protection of employees. Protection from the public in extreme circumstances, but also protection from accusations by customers or fellow employees. The best approach in all circumstances is ethics and communication.

Sure, the law may often be on the side of the employer. In 2013, the first case in the U.S. was brought before the courts of secret GPS monitoring. An employer suspected an employee was submitting false time reports and returning home from extended business trips earlier than his time sheets showed. The employer secretly attached a GPS unit to the employee’s vehicle. The employer’s suspicions were confirmed when they found the work car was frequently parked at the house of his secretary. The secret monitoring cost the employee his job and his marriage. He wasn’t happy with his termination so he took a legal route, but the final court of appeals decision said that using a tracking device to confirm suspicions was reasonable. I am not sure if he tried a similar process to save his marriage.

While I don’t necessarily agree on the ethics of the secret attachment of a GPS monitoring device, I certainly agree with the ethics of monitoring activity within your business and allowing all staff to be fully aware that monitoring is in place.

Seeking only the truth

Over more than 28 years of creating and running IT businesses, I have had a range of monitoring activities in place and, fortunately, I have only had to confront two employees as a result of inappropriate activity. In neither example was random inspection of information the way that an employee was caught. In both examples, there were other indicators that something was amiss. Without monitoring in place, I would have had a nagging feeling that something was wrong -- but I would have had zero proof. With monitoring in place, I could inspect data and see exactly what was occurring. In one example, I was concerned about the productivity from one of our technicians. He always seemed busy but the output wasn’t there. After viewing Internet logs, it was obvious that he was visiting sites that I would be embarrassed to show my mates at the pub. When presented with the information, he resigned immediately. The other example involved an alarming drop in profits from one site. Further investigation showed some anomalies, and when video footage was presented to an employee of cash disappearing, the initial story soon changed as the lies collapsed like a house of cards.

It may sound like I am one of those aforementioned cigar-smoking bosses, but we have also used video footage to protect an employee when an absent-minded customer was certain they left a mobile phone behind after visiting one of our sites. We were able to show the customer they left the store with the phone in their hand.

I am certainly a subscriber to the theory that if you are not doing anything wrong, there is nothing to worry about. I realize that Edward Snowden didn’t exactly subscribe to the same theory, but we are talking about a significantly lower level of surveillance in the workplace compared to the level that Snowden exposed.

As always, communication is king. Let people know what you are doing and why, and you are most of the way there.

Photo credit: Pixabay