Should Companies Spy on Their Employees?


Rewarding good work through recognition – donations to a favorite charity, awards, merchandise with the company brand – has become a hallmark of incentivizing employee performance across industries. One company that has made its name revolutionizing the field, by relying on performance observation metrics and generating recognition and rewards – as well as data-driven insights for managers – recently announced that it would join forces with a firm specializing in continuous performance management.

Yet, with cutting-edge HR tool raises another worrying possibility: that the data gathered on employees could be used to spy on their activities.

YouEarnedIt, founded in 2011, headquartered in Austin, Texas and known for gamifying employee performance, made its merger with human resources management company HighGround public earlier this month. The new venture is called Kazoo.

“At Kazoo, our employee-first approach empowers companies and employees to work together for the greater good of the organization,” said Kazoo chief executive Paul Pellmen, announcingOpens a new window the rebranding. “In today’s modern workplace, our platform and our philosophy are boldly redefining what it means to work.”

For Kazoo, that means engaging in a constant state of evaluation through data: evaluation of colleagues, employees and individuals themselves. The company’s adoption of HighGround technologies means it will offer continuous assessment that voids the need for quarterly or annual performance reviews. For 500,000+ employees across various companies currently in the program, data gathered includes personal addresses in order for the shipment of physical rewards.

In its orientation toward meticulous tracking and constant assessment, the technology could be compared to the personal physical health tracking movement – including the Quantified Self movement – that rose in parallel with the advent of fitness and health tracking apps as well as wearable technology that allowed for new data streams.

Like those apps and techniques, though, the data gathered on employees could be used for other purposes.

Cases of employee surveillance have become widespread. OneOpens a new window of old-fashioned surveillance, when Swedish furniture giant Ikea dispatched a private detective to determine whether one of its employee’s year-long sick leave was warranted, prompted outrage. A former employee of Tesla claimed the company spied on its employees’ cell phones.

And health fitness apps have become tools for surveillance: One company in Texas uses fitness apps from its insurance provider to monitor employees’ health performance.

According to research company Gartner, which surveyed 239 companiesOpens a new window , more than half use strategies to track performance – up from 30% that used such monitoring tactics in 2015. The firm predicts that, next year, 80% of companies will use the strategies, which include looking at who takes part in meetings and assessing the records of messages, emails and telephone conversations. If employee surveillance isn’t already ubiquitous, it soon will be.

The same surveyOpens a new window company showed that most people are not comfortable with their firms spying on them, although that’s slowly changing. A survey from years ago showed that only 10% of people were comfortable that their personal information was tracked, with the number rising to 30% by last year.

One of the key insights of the survey, however, was that the number of people who felt comfortable rose dramatically – to 50% – when they were told what the companies wanted to use the information for. In other words, if the companies were transparent with their reasons, half of employees were fine with being tracked.

The results offer key insights for tech, where generally employees could be expected to have a keener understanding of what kind of surveillance technologies are available and what can be extrapolated from digital data.

Whatever insights might be gleaned from employees’ personal data that could add to firm performance, that progress could be seriously undermined if the firm violates employees’ trust by engaging clandestinely in surveillance. Creating a hostile work environment, in turn, can lower moraleOpens a new window and hinder companies’ results.

But if open data tracking policies that apply to the workplace are clearly communicated to employees, along with explanations of how the data is used, companies will likely find a good number of employees to be on board. In general, the same rules that apply to employee performance reviews should apply to tracking in the workplace: it’s incumbent on employers to communicate expectations and be clear about the meaning of certain outcomes. Spying is only spying if it’s done in secret.