Is it a good idea for employers to track their employees?
In late 2020, an Alberta cleaning company told its employees to download an app that would monitor their whereabouts while at work. The app, called Blip, uses GPS to generate a virtual boundary that detects when an employee enters or leaves the work site. It registers a signal from the worker's cell phone, so the employer knows whether an employee is on site and how many hours that person works.
One of the employees, citing concerns about privacy (and being treated like a disobedient child) refused. She was fired.
While monitoring employees isn’t new – Henry Ford was tracking his employees at work and even at their homes in 1914 – many of the technologies to do so are.
But just because new technology exists to track your employees, should you?
With more people working from home, employers are concerned about staying connected to workers. Tools by Microsoft, Google, Slack and other vendors provide insights into communication patterns and other work habits, which, they say, can help employees be more productive. For example, analytics can identify if too many meetings are being scheduled after hours or how much time is spent creating or reading content or collaborating through tools like Teams.
Several companies have taken steps to ensure all data its tools collect does not identify individual employees. In an interview with Computerworld.com, a Microsoft spokesperson says, “we believe that data-driven insights can help people, teams, and organizations in a variety of ways — from troubleshooting boot times to fostering well-being. We’re opposed to workforce surveillance, however.”
Increasingly, though, there is a growing interest around controversial, so-called “bossware” apps; tools that allow managers to track employees’ activity in a more “Big Brother” kind of way.
Some apps can track employees in real time, take screenshots of workers’ computers at regular intervals, do keystroke logging and record their screens. In some cases, these tools can be installed without employees even knowing it.
Here are some examples:
StaffCop : provides a live view of remote workers’ computer screens, tracks Internet history, records programs usage history and typed keystrokes.
Activtrak: gives a detailed breakdown of where employees spend their time, labelling certain apps and websites as productive or unproductive.
CleverControl : administrators can record audio from an employee’s microphone and speakers to monitor conversations during a call.
So…just because you have the technology to spy, should you use it?
ActivTrak CEO Rita Selvaggi, says no, even though her company’s software features granular data reporting and can collect automated screenshots. (It does not do keystroke logging or live video recording.) “Insight versus oversight is an important mantra for us; data should be insightful, and it should not necessarily be used for oversight or monitoring alone.”
And if you do have the ability to monitor your employees, is it legal?
All provinces and territories have legislation that regulates the collection, use and disclosure of personal information in the public sector. When it comes to the private sector, however, only B.C., Alberta and Quebec have similar legislation.
Alberta's Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA) says companies may collect personal employee information for "reasonable purposes related to recruiting, managing or terminating personnel" as long as employees receive "reasonable notice" and information on why the information is being collected.
It also says that an organization "must give the person a reasonable opportunity to decline his or her consent."
In an interview with CBC’s Go Public, Toronto employment lawyer Soma Ray-Ellis says employers often don't know enough about how data will be used, making informed consent difficult. Lawyer Lior Samfiru adds that employees can be required to download an app on their cellphone, but only if they’re told it’s a requirement when they’re hired. Otherwise, refusing to download it is not considered misconduct and grounds for dismissal.
Federal legislation is in the works. Last fall, the Government of Canada launched Canada’s Digital Charter and Implementation Act, which, once implemented, is intended to modernize and bring more clarity to the protection of personal information in the private sector.