Will new techniques spark resentment?

Executive Summary

Workplace surveillance and company monitoring of employees are expanding and evolving, aided by technological innovations and enabled by privacy laws that have not kept pace with those developments. A recent survey estimates 98 percent of U.S. and U.K. workplaces have some form of digital surveillance, such as tracking employees through sociometric badges or biometric scanners, scanning emails and social media posts, monitoring computer keystrokes, surveilling with a video camera or monitoring movement through GPS on phones. Businesses use these technologies to improve performance, efficiency and security. But they run a risk that employees will resent what they perceive to be Big Brother-style intrusiveness, and companies also must stay in compliance with a confusing mix of state and federal laws on surveillance.

Among the key takeaways:

  • New “people analytics” technology uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to crunch monitoring data and put it to use; about 70 percent of companies worldwide are putting this into place.

  • Experts say keeping employees informed about the reasons for monitoring is a better approach than secrecy, because it earns trust and buy-in and avoids low morale, loss of productivity and negative publicity.

  • U.S. law has not kept up with technological change, but U.S. companies with employees in Europe are subject to restrictive new digital privacy laws enacted there.

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Resources for Further Study



Bagley, Constance E., “Managers and the Legal Environment: Strategies for Business, 9th Edition,” Cengage Learning, 2018. A Yale senior research fellow and former law professor looks at current legal issues facing business, including employers’ right to restrict social media and international privacy laws such as Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation.

Indiparambil, Jijo James, “Electronic Surveillance and Privacy in the Workplace: A Theological-Ethical Response,” Lap Lambert Academic Publishing, 2017. A Belgian business ethics researcher examines whether spying on employees is counterproductive.

Waber, Ben, “People Analytics: How Social Sensing Technology Will Transform Business and What It Tells Us About the Future of Work,” FT Press, 2013. The CEO and co-founder of the software company Humanyze explores how sensors and analytics can help companies improve performance and employee morale.


Dai, Hengchen, et al., “The Impact of Time at Work and Time Off From Work on Rule Compliance: The Case of Hand Hygiene in Health Care,” Journal of Applied Psychology, May 2015, https://tinyurl.com/y8hdtxj5. Business researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and University of North Carolina studied whether monitoring health care workers’ handwashing practices had beneficial results – and what happened when monitoring was ended.

Fusi, Federica, and Mary K. Feeney, “Electronic monitoring in public organizations: evidence from US local governments,” Public Management Review, Nov. 10, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yb7mwmp4. Arizona State University researchers reviewed the state of electronic monitoring in small- and medium-sized municipalities.

Miller, Andrea, “More companies are using technology to monitor employees, sparking privacy concerns,” ABC News, March 10, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ybnjousk. A reporter gives an overview of newer surveillance technologies and their legal implications.

Reports and Studies

“State Social Media Privacy Laws,” National Conference of State Legislatures, Jan 2, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/jv9ha2f. A bipartisan organization examines and lists the states with laws regulating whether employers can require employees or applicants to submit social media usernames and passwords.

“Your Employer May Be Watching Your Every Move: Employees Find Workplace Monitoring Objectionable, Says New Survey,” PRNewswire, June 7, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ybmds359. A survey of 250 global human resources professionals found that most employees are concerned about data privacy but accept some type of monitoring as long as it is work-related.

Ella, V. John, “Employee Monitoring and Workplace Privacy Law,” American Bar Association National Symposium on Technology in Labor and Employment Law, April 2016, https://tinyurl.com/yadlskov. The American Bar Association gives an overview of current law and recent cases covering different aspects of workplace surveillance/monitoring and worker privacy.

The Next Step


Campbell, Dakin, “HSBC is making a $130 million investment in its bank branches and the latest step is to arm its bankers with Samsung watches,” Business Insider, Oct. 22, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y7xsk5p6. To improve communication, the bank’s branch managers will use Samsung watches to send and receive messages and speak to colleagues using a microphone.

Dundas, Suzie, “Kinetic Uses A.I. To Monitor Workplace Movement – But It Isn’t Aiming To Be Big Brother,” Forbes, Oct. 25, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yag97hze. A new wearable device, which detects unsafe body positioning and movements and alerts the wearer, aims to help prevent workplace injuries and improve worker safety.

Ma, Alexandra, “Thousands of people in Sweden are embedding microchips under their skin to replace ID cards,” Business Insider, May 14, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ybch9sty. About 3,000 people in Sweden have accepted implanted microchips, which eliminate the need for office key cards and IDs. The chips even take the place of train tickets.

Legal Action

Cimpanu, Catalin, “Wendy’s faces lawsuit for unlawfully collecting employee fingerprints,” ZDNet, Sept. 23, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y9mfqdly. A class-action lawsuit filed by former employees of the fast-food company alleges that Wendy’s does not disclose what it does with employee fingerprints collected by biometric scanners.

Grimes, Steven, and Eric Shinabarger, “Biometric Privacy Litigation: The Next Class Action Battleground,” Bloomberg Law, Jan. 17, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y7c3tgg8. About 60 class-action lawsuits have been filed under Illinois’ decade-old Biometric Information Privacy Act, which covers how employers use employees’ biometric data.

Hong, Nicole, “At Stake in Lawsuit: What Can Bosses Access on Your Personal Devices?” The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 9, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yak2n36r. A lawsuit alleges that a company accessed a former employee’s home computer to read his email and steal data. Legal experts say the case raises questions about the boundaries between work and personal devices.


American Management Association
1601 Broadway, New York, NY 10019
Professional management organization that provides training, seminars, podcasts and other services, plus information about management topics, including workplace surveillance.

Electronic Frontier Foundation
815 Eddy St., San Francisco, CA 94109
Organization focused on civil liberties in a digital world; answers legal inquiries and provides advocacy, online privacy tools and other resources.

Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)
1718 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 200, Washington, DC 20009
An independent research center aimed at focusing attention on privacy and human rights issues; maintains other sites such as privacy.org and privacycoalition.org.

National Workrights Institute
128 Stone Cliff Road, Princeton, NJ 08540
Founded in 2000 by former staff of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Taskforce on Civil Liberties in the Workplace, this advocacy organization provides legal databases and information about workplace privacy and human rights issues.

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
3033 5th Ave., Suite 223, San Diego, CA 92103
Privacy-rights organization that responds to consumer complaints and questions about privacy issues; maintains a database of articles, reports and other resources.

Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)
1800 Duke St., Alexandria, VA 22314
1-800-283-SHRM (7476)
The world’s largest HR professional organization, with 300,000 members in 165 countries; it has a large database of articles about workplace surveillance and monitoring.

Workplace Fairness
8121 Georgia Ave., Suite 600, Silver Spring, MD 20910
Organization promoting employee rights; it maintains a database of employment lawyers and guides to workplace issues, including surveillance.

DOI: 10.1177/237455680433.n1