Perhaps this lack of trust is explained by a global report released at the end of last year, the Global Retail Theft Barometer. It found that Australia was the only country in the Asia Pacific region to list employee theft as the main reason for missing profits and stock shortages. The majority of countries blamed shoplifting for their retail shrinkage rates.
Spying is nothing new for call centre workers, of course. Many of them have their phone conversations recorded "for quality and training purposes", but in reality, they're also used for espionage - or just for a giggle. I used to work in one where managers would listen to employees' personal calls and share with their colleagues what they'd heard.
Boeing allegedly employs a team of investigators who have the authority to read employees' private emails. They even follow workers and secretly take photos and videos of them. In certain cases, they covertly monitor employees' monitors, seeing in real time what their team members are doing on their computers, including their keystrokes.
Hewlett-Packard has faced the most public scrutiny over this issue. In 2006, they were ordered by a court to pay $14.5 million as a result of over-the-top espionage. They read their workers' emails and instant messages, used deception to obtain their phone records, and even initiated physical surveillance of one of their board members.
Internet monitoring is the default way to nab people. I saw a report in one company listing the websites employees had visited, the time spent on each site, and the links that were clicked. This was then used to sack staff because it's easier to dismiss people for inappropriate internet usage than it is to get rid of them for poor performance. Eight blokes had their employment terminated when a check of their emails by the IT department discovered they were forwarding pornographic images to each other.
Potential employees are being spied upon, too. Last year, a poll by Development Dimensions International revealed that 40 per cent of interviewers were worried they didn't have enough information about a candidate to make a decision, so 25 percent of them checked social networking sites, such as MySpace, to find out what a candidate was really like. 60 per cent of those who logged on found the information they needed and were subsequently able to make a hiring choice they felt was right.
Bosses are taking a peek at social networking sites as well. Fearful of what their employees are saying about the company on sites like Twitter, they check their workers' accounts and reprimand them for negative comments. For example, in the UK last February, a teenager was sacked for saying her work was boring on Facebook. In April, a worker in Switzerland was fired for using Facebook while she was sick at home. And in NSW last September, prison officers took their employer to the Industrial Relations Commission seeking the right to criticise their company online.
In some cases, it's understandable to spy on workers, especially when the risk of stolen intellectual property, fraudulent compensation claims, and potential harassment is high. But managers need to be careful that their attempts to minimise risk don't intrude on their employees' privacy. The difference between necessary precautions and micromanagement is small, but the adverse impact on morale is significant. At the very least, give employees advance notice in writing of any surveillance activities.
Once upon a time, managers would just spy with their little eye, but now something beginning with T is making this task simpler. And that word is 'technology'. The rate of employee-monitoring software is increasing in both usage and effectiveness, and it's turning big brother into a big bother.