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The employer surveillance state

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 10/21/2018 Ellen Ruppel Shell
© Mengxin Li

The more bosses try to keep track of their workers, the more precious time employees waste trying to evade them.

Jason Edward Harrington spent six years working the luggage-screening checkpoint at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. A college graduate and freelance writer, he initially took the job as a stopgap, but found that he enjoyed meeting passengers from all over the world, some of whom showed a real interest in him. While working for TSA, though, Harrington noticed his bosses following and video-recording his every move, a practice they said was at least in part for his protection: If, perchance, a traveler’s iPad went missing, the videotapes would prove that Harrington was not to blame. Harrington was on board with that. His problem, he told me, was that supervisors would also view the tapes to search for the slightest infraction—anything from gum-chewing to unauthorized trips to the bathroom. Eventually, these intrusions led him to quit. “If they trusted us, respected us, you could really enjoy the job,” Harrington told me. “But they didn’t.”

A TSA spokesman, Michael McCarthy, acknowledged the agency’s use of surveillance, though he attributed the “fairly rapid” turnover rate of TSA baggage screeners to other factors, in particular, to “low pay and high stress.” In fact, electronic surveillance of employees, through technologies including not just video cameras but also monitoring software, has grown rapidly across all industries. Randolph Lewis, a professor of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Under Surveillance, Being Watched in Modern America, pointed to software that makes it possible for employers to monitor employee facial expressions and tone of voice to gauge their emotional states, such as rage or frustration. Among more conventional surveillance methods, employers can track employees’ website visits, and keep tabs on their employees’ keystrokes. Employers can also monitor employees’ personal blogs, and read their social-networking profiles. In one case in California, a sales executive at a money-transfer firm sued her employer, claiming she had been fired for disabling an app that used employer-issued cell phones to track workers via GPS, even when they were off the clock. (The suit was later settled out of court.)

Related: Your boss is on to your 'work from home' scheme

The proliferation of surveillance is due, at least in part, to the rising sophistication and declining cost of spy technology: Employers monitor workers because they can. Michel Anteby, a Boston University sociologist and business scholar who has watched how monitoring impacts employees at the TSA and other workplaces, has also noticed that the more employees are surveyed, the harder they try to avoid being watched, and the harder management tries to watch them. “Most TSA workers we observed do everything possible to stay under the radar, to essentially disappear,” he said. “They try to never speak up, never stick out, do nothing that might get noticed by management,” he said. “This leads to a vicious cycle, whereby management grows more suspicious and feels justified in ratcheting up the surveillance.”

Perhaps the most common argument for surveillance—one often deployed by firms that make employee-monitoring products—is that it can make workers more productive. Purveyors of monitoring software claim they can help managers reduce the number of wasted hours and ensure that employees make better use of their time.

A Boston-based technology company called Humanyze applies what it calls “moneyball for business.” The term “moneyball” originated in Michael Lewis’s best-seller about the Oakland Athletics baseball team and its general manager, Billy Beane, who used statistics to assemble a team of particularly gifted ball players. Humanyze gathers data by fitting employee ID badges with a microphone, location sensors, and an accelerometer, to tease out patterns of employee behavior that affect a company’s performance. At one office, Humanyze’s data suggested that more frequent employee interactions improve productivity, so the employer installed larger, more central coffee stations to encourage those interactions.

In his essay “In Praise of Electronically Monitoring Employees,” the MIT researcher Andrew McAfee describes a study of surveillance he conducted in collaboration with colleagues at Washington University in St. Louis and Brigham Young University. Using theft-detection software, the researchers monitored waitstaff (with their knowledge), at 392 casual-dining restaurants in the United States. The installation of the software correlated with a reduction in employee theft by less than $25 a week for each location—not a whole lot. What was significant was that revenue grew by $2,975 a week per location—nearly $1,000 from drink orders alone. Employee’s tips also grew, and this, McAfee writes, suggests a “win-win.” He speculates: “As far as we can tell, performance improved simply because people started doing their jobs better.” Perhaps once the “bad actors” understood they were being watched, they realized their best bet for making more money was to improve their service in hopes of garnering larger tips, McAfee speculates—and that good behavior caught on among other employees, too.

The proposition that job performance improves when employees are monitored, and thereby theoretically deprived of the opportunity to steal, is not a hopeful one. An equally plausible explanation for the growth in revenue at the restaurants McAfee observed is that installing spy software was part of a larger commitment on the part of management to organize and streamline operations. Anteby notes, “It’s possible that almost any change—even changing the lighting—would have prompted a similar increase in productivity.” It’s also possible that surveilled employees felt pressured to push customers to order more—a practice that is not necessarily good for business in the long run, as few of us enjoy feeling pressured to over-consume.

In general, studies of surveillance suggest that it can increase workplace stress, promote worker alienation, lower job satisfaction, and convey the perception that the quantity of work one generates is more important than its quality.In an analysis aptly titled “Watching Me Watching You,” the British anthropologists Michael Fischer and Sally Applin conclude that workplace surveillance creates “a culture where ... people more often alter their behavior to suit machines and work with them, rather than the other way around,” and that this tends to erode their sense of “agency.” That is, the constant surveillance of employees diminishes their capacity to operate as independent thinkers and actors.

Worse yet, some studies suggest that workers who sense they are monitored have lower self-esteem and are actually less productive. In fact, Anteby told me, those of us who do “cheat” on the job often do so in retaliation for the very lack of trust surveillance implies: For example, some TSA employees he observed wasted countless hours finding clever ways to evade the surveillance camera’s roving eye. So while surveillance can be of benefit under some conditions, it’s unclear precisely what those conditions might be—or whether there are limits.

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Ellen Ruppel Shell is the author of the forthcoming book The Job: Work and It’s Future in a Time of Radical Change.

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