Avoid Becoming Big Brother: How to Earn Trust by Tracking Employee Productivity Ethically

Avoid Becoming Big Brother: How to Earn Trust by Tracking Employee Productivity Ethically

Tracking employee productivity is essential for any company that wants to continuously improve. However, new and upcoming technologies have made it possible to monitor workers to a degree that prompts two important questions: How do we weigh the pros and cons of employee performance tracking, and how do we get the best of what this practice has to offer, without overstepping the rights of employees?

Professional woman in a wheelchair analyzing data on computer screens.

Defining Employee Performance Tracking

Performance tracking can come in any variety of forms, and any form of performance tracking can be defined by answering two questions: 

  • What is being tracked?
  • How precise is the collected data collected? This is known as the level of granularity.

Nearly every company makes general assessments of an employee’s productivity: usually by measuring hours worked and comparing them to the total amount of work completed.

However, in the last decade, new technologies have given companies the ability to track and measure employee activity at much higher levels of granularity.

For example, organizations nearly always track their employee’s time at work. Until recently this was only feasible at a very low level of granularity, by using time cards that let employers view employee work in blocks that begin with clocking in and that ends with clocking out. 

Over the past ten years though, new technologies have enabled companies to collect employee work time with a much higher level of granularity, by using software installed on employee devices to detect when an employee has gotten out of their chair to use the restroom, or when they have looked away from their work to respond to a text.

These new suites of monitoring software are designed to give employers an extremely fine-grained view of any aspect of their employees’ lives that could possibly make contact with their work activities. Today nearly 75% of companies in the U.S. use some form of highly granular employee surveillance program.

Pros and Cons of Employee Performance Tracking

As with any new technology, this new capability comes with both benefits and risks. On one hand, these technologies offer sensible ways for employers to ensure workers’ time isn’t being misspent. 

However, some can cross the line by infringing on employee’s rights to privacy, by monitoring things like their bathroom usage, or simply create unfair or unrealistic work expectations, by penalizing employees for sitting still, or taking their eyes off their screen.

It is widely agreed upon that there is some moral line that employers should not cross when keeping tabs on employees. And there is a growing awareness that many of these employee-monitoring practices can cross a moral line. Where is that line, though, and how do we stay on the correct side of it?

Tracking employee performance offers plenty of benefits to employers. Even employers with the most benevolent interest in their employees’ privacy might implement versions of these programs because they allow companies to keep constant track of how their data is being used, which can be essential in handling data breaches or compliance audits. They could also remotely control computers to help troubleshoot emergency problems, or analyze employee activity to determine a baseline for employee productivity. 

It is easy to see the appeal of these benefits. And because more data generates more insight and better decisions, it is easy to understand why corporations would invest in tools that give them as much information as possible. 

This is hardly a new business practice. There was once an entire division of the Ford Motor Company established in 1913, called the Ford Sociological Department, that was charged not only with tracking employee performance, but with secretly surveilling employees off the job, to determine whether employees were drinking alcohol, practicing good hygiene, or having what Ford considered “appropriate” marital relations.

Ford’s employee surveillance practices were extreme and invasive violations of employees’ basic rights to privacy and to freedom from discrimination. Today, however, companies can simply purchase software that gives them much more data on their workers than Ford’s Sociological Department could have ever collected. And in many industries, highly granular forms of employee tracking–even when off the job–has become the norm.

Since 2018, 94% of major corporations reported that they track, at a minimum, their employee’s internet history, phone use, and emails. Many of them go further, requiring installation of monitoring software on computers and phones that give employers a wide range of capabilities, including:

  • Viewing contacts lists
  • Taking recordings of phone calls
  • Viewing text message histories
  • Monitoring GPS location
  • Recording ambient sounds and conversations
  • Viewing all photos and video recordings
  • Seeing browser history
  • Monitoring keyboard and mouse activity
  • Tracking employees’ movements via webcams

When Does Performance Tracking Go Too Far?

Employers have a justified interest in knowing certain things about their employees—whether they are spending their time on the job appropriately, whether they are handling company equipment properly, and, to some extent, even whether their employees are physically healthy. 

So how do we know when performance tracking goes too far? There are a few questions that can help answer that question in most cases:

  • Have the employees been clearly, directly informed about what information is being collected, and how it’s being collected?
  • Have they clearly, explicitly consented to being monitored in all those various ways?
  • Do the specific employee-monitoring practices create potentially-harmful incentives within the organization? Do they contribute to an unhealthy organizational culture?
  • Is the collected information being used purely to increase the efficiency of the company and the wellbeing of its employees and customers?

Some companies have implemented systems that detect when an employee goes to the bathroom, or goes longer than a few minutes without using their mouse or keyboard, and then deducts time from their pay. It is not difficult to imagine even more extreme uses, like tracking employee’s eye movements and refusing to pay employees for time when their eyes were closed too long, or not focused on their computer screen.


To sum up, the practice of employee monitoring is so pervasive at this point that it’s simply the norm for large companies. The software is constantly becoming more sophisticated, and the benefits to companies have become so attractive that it’s nearly impossible for leaders to justify not using it. 

This is a major moment in the history of corporations, and while companies will generally benefit, it’s inevitable that some will go too far, and damage their public image, their relationship to their employees, or their organizational culture. 

To ensure we don’t cross the ethical line in our data collection, business leaders have to do four things:

  • Commit to continually scrutinizing the details of their surveillance programs
  • Commit to policies that preserve their employee’s rights, not only to the basic privacies we all expect, but also the right to lead a life of their choice outside work hours
  • Commit to transparency by clearly communicating the full details of their employee tracking programs at all times
  • Commit to collecting and using information only for the purpose of increasing efficiency and promoting the wellbeing of employees and customers 

These four commitments will help you avoid the pitfalls of overzealous employee surveillance, while still getting the most valuable insights out of these new technologies. Because ethical business is, in the end, just smart business.   

If you’re a leader who wants to put these principles into practice in your own organization and increase employee performance, you can dive deeper into this subject and others with KnowledgeCity. Our courses on Evaluating Employee Performance, and Individual Performance Measurement and Management help you learn new skills, and are designed to be easily accessible regardless of whether you’re working remotely, in-office, or with a hybrid model.

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