Little Brother sees into your cubicle

Surveillance: More employers are monitoring their staffers' work habits, turning computer systems into record-keepers.

August 22, 2002|By Joan Fleischer Tamen | Joan Fleischer Tamen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The next time you log on at work, the boss could be gathering data to see if you're a star - or a slacker.

Computer technology can document, analyze, measure and monitor almost every aspect of an employee's performance. It can count keystrokes per minute, as well as clock your workday like a punch card. It can track distractions such as time spent at an eBay auction or a naughty cyber site.

Software can even show managers what employees are saying over instant messages, or how much time they're spending on the phone.

A Fort Lauderdale, Fla., secretary was fired earlier this year at the sales office where she had worked for five years after bosses cited "excessive personal use of company equipment."

Her employer had installed software that monitored outgoing phone calls and recorded the phone numbers, call durations and to whom they were placed. The secretary had made 300 personal calls, all local and mostly to home, during a three-month period, according to the plaintiff's attorney, Loring Spolter, who won her unemployment benefits.

With studies showing that the average worker spends 75 minutes a day surfing the Internet on company time, and with managers pressured to squeeze more out of their staffs in a difficult economy, using technology to monitor employees is big business.

A 2001 survey by the American Management Association on employee surveillance found that three-fourths of major U.S. firms record and review their workers' communications - double the 1997 figure. And about half of companies polled said they had fired or disciplined employees for violating the company's computer policies.

Enron Corp. fired at least two workers for using online message boards to post complaints and information about the scandal-plagued company back in January.

Last year, at least 20 state employees in South Dakota were fired or disciplined for surfing sports, shopping and porn sites. An investigation of the 100 workers who visited the most Web sites during a three-week period revealed thousands of inappropriate hits.

Miami employment lawyer Mark Cheskin says he has used computer records to defeat an employee who sued his company for overtime pay. "Someone can claim they're working 12-hour days, but an electronic record can track tardiness, your coming and going, and when you're at your desk," said Cheskin, a partner at the law firm of Morgan Lewis.

Inexpensive technology is spurring the growth of employee monitoring, according to the Privacy Foundation in Denver. About one of three employers already monitor employees and the market for such software is expected to grow from $140 million in 2001 to $2 billion by 2005, according to AMR Research, Boston-based management consultants.

Critics such as Frederick Lane, a Burlington, Vt., attorney and author of the soon to be released The Naked Employee: How Technology is Compromising Workplace Privacy (Amacom), say most workers would be aghast to know how vulnerable they are.

"It really raises the question of the relationship between employer and employee," said Lane. "Does the information that the company can gather outweigh the psychological impact on the employee who feels they can never take a break because a whole host of `Little Brothers' are watching?"

Be forewarned that the "delete" key doesn't completely eliminate e-mails; they stay in a computer file bank, where managers, lawyers and law enforcement officials can retrieve them years later.

The most ominous, Big Brother-like product is surveillance software that stores backstrokes of what perhaps you were only "thinking."

For example, Dunkirk, Md.-based Adavi makes software that secretly monitors and records each keystroke and every revision - even that deleted nasty note to the boss.

Companies say they're not trying to read workers' minds, but rather getting a handle on renegade employees who could be stealing company files, copying them onto discs or CD-ROMs - or downloading software to be used in running their own businesses.

E-management proponents say Web-enabled employee performance software gives scientific precision and lessens a manager's subjectivity. It can identify and reward stellar performers - while weeding out others.

Spherion Corp. prides itself on using technology to improve performance and training at its 10 call centers, where it contracts operations for such clients as AT&T, Sprint and Cisco Systems. The Fort Lauderdale staffing and recruitment company rewards top performers with cash bonuses and vacation trips.

"There are no secrets here. You know how you're doing and what's needed for improvement," said Bill Parker, president of customer development for Spherion's outsourcing unit.

Joan Fleischer Tamen writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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