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Ron Alalouff is a journalist specialising in the fire and security markets, and a former editor of websites and magazines in the same fields.
July 19, 2022

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The Video Surveillance Report 2022

Implementing employee monitoring software can result in workers being more likely to break rules and act dishonestly

Since more people started to work remotely in the Spring of 2020, demand for monitoring software is said to have more than doubled, with a reported 1,705% increase of searches for “how to monitor employees working from home,” according to research published in the Harvard Business Review.

Insiderthreat-CitySecurity-20Technologies used for monitoring and tracking employee performance include video surveillance, desktop monitoring, keystroke tracking and GPS location tracking. They are used to track performance, increase productivity and deter rule-breaking.

Although previous studies have shown that in some instances, monitoring can deter specific behaviours such as theft by restaurant workers, the research suggests that in many cases, doing so can seriously backfire.

The researchers surveyed more than 100 employees across the United States, some of whom were subject to monitoring and some of whom were not. They found that those being monitored were substantially more likely to take unapproved breaks, disregard instructions, damage or steal office equipment and deliberately work less productively. A second study involved another 200 employees completing a series of tasks, where half of them were told they would be working under electronic surveillance. They were all then given an opportunity to cheat, and it was found that those who were told they were being monitored were actually more likely to cheat than those who didn’t think they were being monitored.

Internal influences

The researchers explain these results by suggesting that people are motivated to behave well by a combination of external factors (such as the threat of punishment or promise of reward), together with their “internal moral compass”. Previous studies generally focused on the former, such as retail workers who know they are likely to be dismissed if they are caught on camera stealing. But this study brought out the aspect of employees’ internal sense of morality, so that being monitored causes them subconsciously to feel less responsible for their own conduct, making them more likely to behave badly or immorally.

When the participants were surveyed, those who were monitored were more likely to say that whoever was overseeing their monitoring was responsible for their behaviour, while those who weren’t monitored were more likely to take responsibility for their actions. The authors concluded: “This reduction in agency in turn made the monitored employees more likely to act contrary to their own moral standards, ultimately leading them to engage in behaviour that they would otherwise consider immoral.”

So is implementing electronic surveillance always counter-productive? While being monitored is likely to have at least some negative impact on workers’ sense of agency and moral responsibility, when they feel they are being treated fairly they are less likely to feel a reduction in agency and to lose their moral compass.

Enlightened approach

Rather than unilaterally implementing a monitoring system, employers should be open and transparent about their intentions, and give employees a say as to when surveillance would be appropriate and when it’s not. For example, financial services instant messaging platform Symphony allows managers to monitor conversations only to the extent required for record keeping and compliance. The researchers also suggest that employers should also give employees access to their own data, as well as anonymised data collected from other teams. One survey found that just explaining the purpose and scope of any proposed monitoring can boost acceptance of it by around 70%.

“When used [correctly], monitoring employees can prevent accidents, boost performance and improve overall wellbeing,” conclude the researchers. “But our research demonstrates that it can also reduce employees’ sense of agency and personal responsibility, potentially increasing the prevalence of the very behaviours that these systems are meant to deter. To mitigate this risk, leaders must ensure that they treat employees fairly, foster accountability and frame monitoring as a tool for empowering – not punishing – employees.”

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) recommends the following steps when introducing employee monitoring:

  • Explain clearly what you’re monitoring and why
  • Consult with employees to ensure the measures are relevant and necessary. Measures can be about ensuring compliance as well as helping employees become better at their jobs
  • Be mindful of cultural differences, and monitor your system to make sure it does not discriminate against minority groups

CIPD concludes: “If done correctly, monitoring can mitigate organisational risk and augment your line managers’ ability to support employees. However, it is not a replacement for good leadership.”

The study was carried out by Chase Thiel, Julena M Bonner, John Bush, David Welsh and Niharika Garud.

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