Socially Benevolent Workplace Surveillance?

Image credit: Vitor Lima, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Image credit: Vitor Lima, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The topic of workplace surveillance made The New York Times last summer with evidence of benevolent kinds of monitoring, that is, surveillance technologies that will – by some interpretations – benefit workers and managers alike. Some of these systems monitor employees in their every movement around the firm, even on breaks. A Bank of America call center, for instance, used these monitoring techniques and found that workers who communicate more closely when off the desk, are more effective when they return. Managers implemented a 15-minute coffee break for workers to talk with each other – and voila! Call-handling productivity increased 10 percent, and employee turnover fell by 70 percent. Happy workers, happy employers, right?

I was struck that the article mentions research from my campus, Washington University, Saint Louis. Lamar Pierce, a faculty member in the Business School (along with colleagues elsewhere), analyzed data from a surveillance program adopted in casual restaurants (i.e., places like Chili’s, Applebee’s, and the Olive Garden). This program algorithmically observes the way wait staff input sales into the computer, to address potential theft (particularly, under-documenting items on the bill, so that servers can pocket more of the cash left on the table). Results of this monitoring were favorable for employers, as employee theft reduced slightly when they were monitored. In addition, and perhaps as an added bonus, sales went up (because waiters were working harder to sell more food and raise the total charges). Even more, this meant gains for workers too, as their tips increased due to the increase in sales. Another case of good times all around.

But all of this makes me wonder: might this euphoria about surveillance be missing the bigger picture of what happens with technological monitoring in the workplace?

Something not mentioned in the New York Times article, for instance, is that another influential study also out of my university in the same year – one by Neil Richards on “The Dangers of Surveillance”. Appearing the Harvard Law Review, this article presents the other side of monitoring technology. It argues that surveillance inherently gives power to the watcher over the watched. For Richards, surveillance is fundamentally an issue of the civil rights for the surveilled. Secret surveillance, often practiced by firms and state bodies, is especially dangerous. A case in point is the “surveillant symbiosis between companies and the government”– as these two parties are known to exchange technologies and sensitive data about workers and consumers, without the knowledge of those being watched.

Indeed, the kinds of data that employers are collecting are increasingly sensitive – and personal. My own research on Indian call centers indicates how the targets of monitoring are extending way beyond workers’ physical movements, and into their inner cores – their emotional states, and features of their identities. In customer service work, one of the most intrusive software programs is “emotion detection.” It enables managers to technologically surveille the most “human” part of the service relation – the emotional engagement between customer and worker. It uses the wave frequencies of a person’s voice to detect a wide range of human emotions – irritation, duplicity, delight, or sexual arousal. Words themselves are evaluated for emotional content (like “frustrated” and “angry”). The software also assesses features of the conversation like pitch, tone, cadence, and speed for more subtle indicators of emotion. Rapid speech or rising tone can signal excitement. Slower speech or moments of silence can indicate distress, discontent, or unwillingness of a consumer, for instance, to sign up for a health insurance plan.

For Richards, another potential danger of surveillance is the way it facilitates (or at least opens the possibility of) unethical and corrupt behavior by those who control the data. He states that electronic surveillance can increase the risk of blackmail, coercion, and forms of discrimination. He provides many examples of how these digital systems, in their sweeping range of data collection, have gathered information that is unrelated from the original purpose, and risky for the individuals being observed. Elites have then used this private data against the employees they monitor in coercive situations.

Recent studies of the workplace, like that of D’Cruz and Noronha, are confirming that surveillance can corrupt. Their research shows how employers, team leaders, and even colleagues use multiple forms of technology to harass workers. Employers monitor workers continuously from their desks, and then use instant messaging, email, cell phone calls, computer software alerts, etc., to send a constant stream of questions and comments on performance to the worker – a trend that the authors call “cyberbullying” at work. They found many cases of managers who acquired personal information on their employees, contacted employee families outside of work, and threatened to post employee data on social media websites, as well as send it to other potential employers. Needless to say, for women workers, this experience is compounded by sexual harassment, such that cyberbullying can span beyond office hours and locations, and lead to physical threats of workers’ bodies.

My point is this: if (in Pierce’s model of workplace surveillance) workers are assumed to be and treated as criminals, we need to recognize how (as Richard’s model suggests) employers may act in criminal ways as well.

This research serves as a cautionary tale in terms of legal issues surrounding employee rights under surveillance. At a recent conference on “Digital Labor”, law professor Dr. Frank Pasquale pointed out that workers still have no recourse to specify how much or what kind of surveillance they agree to. Under existing labor standards, workers cannot bargain with employers for their privacy in the workplace. And, as the Supreme Court just ruled (unanimously, nonetheless), employers are not obligated to compensate workers for the time they spend in undergoing surveillance. For example, some Amazon warehouse workers wait in security lines over a half an hour long at the end of the day, to assure managers they are not stealing goods as they leave the store. This means that workers are paying with their own time to be surveilled at work.

To say that workplace monitoring is universally detrimental, or the domain of employers alone, however, is problematic. This would be ignoring crucial trends of surveillance in the 21st century. In the era of mobile computing and network connectivity, surveillance is now the domain of many (if not most) groups in the global economy – including workers. My research indicates that workers in India engage in multiple kinds of observation of their employers, both physically and digitally. They make their own databases to catalog employer abuses; they unmask the surveillance practices of elites; they change their identities (through the systems on which they work) to control flows of data, and much more. Furthermore, they do all this in alliance with other groups: like US consumers (with whom they share interests in improved quality of services, and preventing the automation of this work), and even their own Indian managers on the shopfloor (with whom have shared interests in nurturing the Indian outsourcing industry, and sometimes, challenging US firms who contract the services and US vendors who create the surveillance technologies).

Certainly, the surveillance capacity of grassroots actors varies from that of elites. But attention to the often hidden and / or discounted practices of observation, data manipulation, and information gathering – that are practiced by everyday actors and across transnational lines – is essential for a comprehensive of understanding of workplace surveillance. Thus, rather than asking simply whether workplace surveillance is good or bad, perhaps we should start asking: who is engaging in workplace, whom are they observing, with whom are they doing it, for what purposes, and to what ends?

Winifred Poster teaches at Washington University, St. Louis.  Her interests are in feminist labor theory, digital globalization, and Indian outsourcing.

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