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Leadership in an Era of Workplace Surveillance
The existence of surveillance at work and in many aspects of everyday life is hardly a surprise.
Most employees recognize the tremendous value of the data they handle on the job.
Young adults of today don’t remember a time before the internet, and people of all ages willingly hand over masses of personal data every day through their online interactions and social media participation. Most of these people realize that the social platforms they love are mining their content around the clock, creating amazingly detailed digital dossiers that are used primarily in the targeting of advertising.
So why is surveillance in the workplace such a sticky topic?
People want to be trusted inherently, and committed professionals may balk internally at the thought that their employers know exactly what they’re doing on company-issued devices. At the same time, data has become a tremendously valuable corporate asset, and breaches or leaks of data can be devastating.
Digital surveillance in the workplace is a reality, often for good reason. And it’s important that leaders understand its implications and their influence on whether employee monitoring delivers what it promises. In fact, leadership development programs that ignore digital employee monitoring and its effects are missing a key element of workplace operation – one that can cause major problems if ignored.
Leadership Transparency about Monitoring Is Paramount
Computer monitoring can take on the qualities of the “elephant in the room” that everyone ignores unless leaders are honest and transparent about its existence and the reasoning behind it. Conveniently ignoring the fact that a company uses employee monitoring may keep the open push-back to a minimum, but you can rest assured that the frontline employees talk about it and want answers.
It’s up to leadership to provide those answers, as uncomfortable as they might be. People may not be aware of how valuable the data they handle every day is, and they may see surveillance as just another method for leadership to make frontline workers stay in their lanes. By communicating what is being monitored and more importantly, why it is being monitored, leaders can prevent long-term problems with employee disengagement and hostility.
Being forthright and honest about monitoring, consequences, and enforcement can prevent long-term problems.
Fairness and Consistency of Enforcement Crucial
Equally important is that monitoring be used consistently and across the board. In other words, if the computer use of the entry-level engineer is monitored, then the computer use of the department head or vice president of technology’s computer use should be monitored too. Moreover, the consequences for breaching company policy should be applied with absolute fairness. Any other approach will kill morale and has the potential to drive away key employees that you dearly want to keep.
And the company’s entire approach to surveillance and monitoring should be reviewed periodically. You should monitor only the activity that warrants it, and inform all affected employees that you do so. For example, GPS tracking of company-issued laptops and phones makes sense because companies need to know where their property is, and tracking can be helpful in the event of theft. Employees need to know what is being monitored and why, and training sessions that spell it out clearly prevent misunderstandings and help employees understand why it is necessary.
Honesty about the Presence of Surveillance Is Non-Negotiable
Read any book, blog post, or article about leadership and you’ll see that honesty and transparency are two of the most important qualities leaders can have. In a business world where employee monitoring is often necessary to protect company property and company secrets, leaders must be prepared to communicate the fact that it’s taking place and why.
Leadership development programs and leadership coaching can help when companies want to proactively build understanding with employees about monitoring, and they can help when company leaders have mishandled the conversation about monitoring and want to remedy the situation. Any leadership development program worth its salt will emphasize honesty and transparency, and leadership coaching is frequently employed specifically for assisting leaders with their communication skills.
It’s not easy keeping pace with technological developments in the workplace, but it’s essential because of the effects they have on overall corporate culture. I invite you to check out my books, particularly Cultural Transformations: Lessons of Leadership and Corporate Reinvention. Excellent training, strong communication, and honesty up and down the corporate ladder have always been crucial to healthy and vibrant corporate culture, and the reality of workplace surveillance only makes those practices more important.