One of the biggest banks in the UK recently hit the headlines for the wrong reason. Barclays had piloted a software system that monitored the amount of time that employees spent at their desks. Although Barclays has stopped using the programme for workplace surveillance practices, it has, as you can imagine, caused quite a commotion. Barclays said that the pilot scheme was launched to ensure employees were not over-working and to increase productivity.
The news was revealed by City AM and went on to say that the system told employees not to take breaks and a Barclays employee was even told that they had “not enough time in the Zone yesterday”.
Sapien is the company behind the surveillance software and they state that in addition to tracking the activities of staff it also monitors when workers go offline.
This isn’t the first time Barclays has faced a backlash for its practices. Three years ago, the bank was criticised heavily for installing heat and motion devices to detect when desks were being used, although its purpose was actually to optimise office space.
Barclays shouldn’t be singled out regarding staff surveillance because many major companies have used different methods to track staff activities. Four years ago, the Telegraph newspaper withdrew devices that monitored when employees were at their desks after it was questioned by the National Union of Journalists. The company stated that the sensors were only being used to improve the energy efficiency of the office.
Moving closer to home, Amazon faced a backlash in 2013, when a BBC investigation revealed scanners were being used in its Swansea warehouse that tracked the rate at which employees collected orders. An undercover reporter revealed that he would face disciplinary action if he didn’t work fast enough. Then two years ago a story broke revealing that Amazon had patented designs for a wristband that would monitor where warehouse employees were placing their hands.
Barclays, Amazon and The Telegraph are not the only companies to employ some sort of workplace surveillance practices, but what exactly are the rules regarding this.
Legislation states that employers must be able to justify why they are monitoring staff at work and this would include the use of CCTV, keeping phone call records, logging email and internet use and searching staff or their workspaces.
The Data Protection Act states that any data should only be used, legally, transparently and fairly. The data must be used for a specific purpose and kept for no longer than necessary. Before an employer starts monitoring staff, they should be made aware of the guidance available from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). Employers must inform staff as to why they are being monitored and they should explain the company’s policy regarding the use of work phones or computers for personal use.
However, there is an exception to this rule: Employers can monitor staff without their knowledge if they are suspected of breaking the law, because informing them beforehand would make it difficult to prove they were breaking the law.
Employees who believe their employer is not treating them fairly can complain to the Information Commissioner and if necessary, take the company they work for to an employment tribunal.
Workplace surveillance is obviously a very contentious issue and what is just as obvious is that there will be many more companies in the future that suffer from the negative publicity of covertly implementing such practices.
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