What is Employee Surveillance?

Camera Wall
Photo by Lianhao Qu
Employee surveillance is the monitoring of employees and collection of employee data, identifiable or not, for the purpose of influencing and managing the behavior of those being monitored.

It is frequently referred to as monitoring or tracking, however the methods and aims remain the same, regardless of the name.

Employee surveillance can take many forms, but it is often implemented for extended and continuous periods of time and has the capacity to collect large amounts of identifiable data. It is typically done during working hours. However, there is a worrying trend of employee surveillance extending outside of workplaces and working times.


“Why do employers use surveillance?”

There are a huge number of reasons why employees use surveillance tactics against employees.

These include:

  • To reinforce management power and control
  • To ‘measure’ performance and productivity
  • To understand employee mindset and attitude
  • To map social relationships between employees
  • To undermine whistleblowing efforts
  • To gain intelligence on workplace organising activities

Instances of such tactics can - and do - appear in a diverse range of contexts. Although we might think of surveillance as something primarily digital, and rooted in office environments, it is important to remember that some of the most well-documented examples of surveillance have taken place in logistics. It’s no secret that delivery drivers and warehouse staff are being increasingly tracked in a bid to enforce a specific form of workplace discipline that allows management to deliver what it might call greater ‘efficiency’.

It’s not just about speed and output. Surveillance can also be used to determine the ‘quality’ of one’s work, or can be deployed in a pseudoscientific manner to build a psychological profile of employees to understand motivations and attitude. The former is something widely used in customer service and support settings, while the latter is today ubiquitous in many forms of white collar work.

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The tools and techniques of surveillance

Although we shouldn’t reduce employee surveillance to technological capabilities, there are still a range of technological tools that make surveillance easier.

These include:

Graffiti of Security Cameras
Photo by Kirill Sharkovski
  • Reading instant messages and emails
  • Application usage recording
  • Viewing calendars, notes, and reminders
  • Remote desktop control
  • Monitoring internet activity
  • Keylogging and mouse tracking
  • GPS and mobile device tracking
  • Recording and screenshotting employees’ screens

That list is far from exhaustive. Employee surveillance is a growing industry driven by employers looking to increase pressure and control over staff, and software companies producing new technologies that enable such extensive monitoring. The tactics employed and the products on offer will continue to dominate the workplace, as long as there is no challenge to intrusive surveillance for the control and discipline of labour.


The Problem

Workplace surveillance has become unnecessarily intrusive. It contributes to a style of work that is increasingly hostile to workers’ mental health and increases stress. Its implementation is rarely transparent and creates many opportunities for workers to be treated unfairly.

In short, it undermines employee autonomy and agency.