Impact of electronic surveillance in the workplace

A recent study has explored employees’ reactions to the surveillance of workers using equipment such as CCTV, monitoring of e-mails, and restrictions on internet browsing. Monitoring was seen to have both a protective and controlling function – but the controlling factor emerged as the stronger. Workers said monitoring had a negative impact on their wellbeing and a detrimental effect on the management-employee relationship.

About the study

An unpublished qualitative study on electronic monitoring (EM) systems in the workplace was conducted in 2013 by Christine Garzia. The research formed part of her MSc in Occupational Psychology with Birkbeck University in London.

The aim of study was to look at the impact of technological surveillance systems and to assess their impact on professional workers. Participants in the study were subjected to a number of monitoring systems. These varied from workplace to workplace, but the range included CCTV surveillance, monitoring of e-mails and telephone calls, biometric-based time attendance systems through a palm reader, and monitoring and restriction of internet browsing.

Methodology

This qualitative study was based on 12 semi-structured interviews with seven female and five male graduate professional workers employed as project administrators with the Maltese public service. Template analysis was used to interpret the data, a structured technique for analysing qualitative data.

Main findings

The predominant perception that emerged is the link between surveillance technologies and the controlling factor that they impose on workers. While the respondents in general were critical of the use of such technology, which was described as being ‘unjust and rigid’ by some, the majority seemed more concerned about how the organisation managed the monitoring system. Many commented on the cynical approach adopted by their employer which reflected lack of trust in them.

Some informants highlighted the ‘protective functions’ that electronic monitoring surveillance systems brought with them. Some went as far as seeing EM as necessary in order to curb abusive work practices by other employees. They saw them as a ‘good watchdog’.

However, in general, the monitoring systems introduced a number of negative feelings among the workers and this affected their well-being. Some expressed this in terms of a ‘sense of discomfort’, while others spoke about their ‘frustration’, and how surveillance exposed their ‘vulnerability’.

Some of the workers implied that monitoring systems disregarded good behaviour and picked up only bad behaviour. This left workers feeling like that they were being treated like children instead of responsible adults. For some workers, this resulted in a loss of dignity and lack of empowerment, while others expressed frustration at their management’s lack of flexibility.

The findings also suggested that such systems could have a negative impact on the relationship between management and the workers, especially if such measures were perceived to be excessive or there was a lack of communication about the systems.

The research suggests that before any monitoring system is introduced, management should be ‘clear and honest’ with the workers about it if they want to avoid denting the trust of their employees. They should also be clear about the aims and scope of such surveillance systems to avoid a detrimental effect on workers and the employee-management relationship.

Commentary

While technological surveillance at the workplace can bring benefits to the organisation, such as exposing dishonest workers, its impact on employees seems less positive. Electronic monitoring and can affect the workers negatively and hinder their productivity and satisfaction at work, especially when workers compare themselves to peers who are not monitored.

Reference

Garzia, C. (2013), Workplace Surveillance: Good Watchdog or Cynical Control?, unpublished manuscript, Birkbeck College, University of London.

Anna Borg, Centre for Labour Studies

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