I'll be watching you

A report on workplace monitoring
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
17 Aug 2018
Workers’ attitudes to surveillance

Workers expect surveillance to become more widespread

The majority of workers believe that surveillance is already likely to be taking place in their workplace. 70 per cent think surveillance will become more widespread in future, while only 6 per cent thought that it'll become less common.

"I think that workplace monitoring will become more commonplace in the future than it is now"

Source: TUC/BritainThinks

Which types of surveillance are considered unacceptable?

Forms of surveillance ranked by net unacceptability

Forms of surveillance ranked by net unacceptability
Source: TUC/BritainThinks

It’s clear that some forms of workplace monitoring are considered even more unacceptable than others. 

Monitoring company assets, for example, is thought of as unacceptable by less than a quarter of working people. In contrast, around three-quarters (76 per cent) believe that facial recognition software and the monitoring of employee’s social media use outside of work hours is unacceptable.

Employers need to justify the use of surveillance

In our qualitative research, we found a clear dividing line for some workers is whether the monitoring is arbitrary or justified. Many people struggle to see the justification for facial recognition software or the monitoring of personal Facebook posts. By contrast, bag checks or monitoring calls and emails made sense to some.

I had a job where I had to handle lots of money and obviously they had bag searches then. I’d be annoyed if they introduced it where I work now though, there’s no reason.

Donald, a call centre worker

Invasive or individualised monitoring

Anything that feels invasive or overly-focused on one individual also tends to be widely seen as unacceptable. Those we spoke to wanted monitoring to be applied universally and not just against specific employees. It’s considered unfair if some employees are monitored, but others aren’t. For example, Bill, an engineer in the energy sector, told us how junior employees were unfairly monitored much more heavily than senior staff.

There’s also a clear dislike of any form of surveillance that films specific individuals . This was backed up in our quantitative findings. Around two-thirds of working people thought that the use of webcams on individual work computers was unacceptable , while only around a third thought the same of CCTV. Both involve filming employees, but the latter involves filming everyone from a distance rather than the expressions on an individual’s face.

Monitoring toilet use

Another particularly invasive form of surveillance considered a step-too-far by many of the people we spoke to in focus groups was monitoring or limiting the amount of time staff could spend going to the toilet. Although not covered in the quantitative polling, it repeatedly came up in qualitative discussions.

A team leader in a call centre told us that her manager would ask her to keep an eye on how long people were spending in the toilet. While she was happy to monitor staff in other ways, this felt over-the-top and unfair. A call centre worker who had experienced this type of monitoring told us how his boss would watch everything staff were doing, “you couldn't even go to the toilet without them wanting to know”.

Monitoring or limiting toilet use is not only unpleasant for workers, it can also lead to issues around equality. There have been cases in Europe, for example, of female members of staff being made to wear certain items of clothing to make it clear when they’re menstruating so that they are allowed more frequent trips to the toilet. 2 3 

They try and make me monitor how long people go toilet for. I just hate that. It’s not your business why someone is in there.

Angela, a team leader in a call centre

Outside of work hours is off-bounds

Surveillance outside of working hours also crosses a line for many. There’s strong support among workers  for employers to be barred from monitoring staff at these times, including while on breaks.

"Employers should not be allowed to monitor employees outside of work hours, including when they are on breaks"

Source: TUC/BritainThinks

74 per cent of working people think that employers should not be allowed to monitor staff outside of working hours, with only 10 per cent thinking they should be allowed.

When we spoke to workers about this, they strongly believed that what people did outside of work was off-bounds as long as they were doing their jobs while in work and unless it somehow impacted upon their ability to do the job.

Social media

Checking a staff member’s social media is widely unpopular, with 69 per cent of working people think it’s unacceptable to monitor an employee’s use of social media outside of working hours.

Social media offers a glimpse into a worker’s private life outside work. The risk for many people is that an employer might make some sweeping judgements based on this glimpse. Being tagged in some photos from a night out four years ago, or having a drinks-heavy Instagram, might be frowned upon by a snooping line manager who then unfairly carries these judgements into the workplace.

People judge you, don’t they? If you went to Magaluf 4 years ago, they might think you’re not the right fit for this organisation.

Noel, an office-based worker

But it’s not just judgements about a staff member’s social life. Workers could express political views or opinions about their workplace on social media that lead them to being dismissed or victimised by their employer. This puts union members who want to take part in social media campaigns in a tough and risky position.

It’s bad enough when your current boss has a look at your social media. But, employers might be doing this during the recruitment phase, and decide not to hire a candidate based on what they find. Just under half of working people (47 per cent) don’t feel it’s acceptable for an employer to even look at a candidate’s social media presence before a job interview.
 

"It is acceptable for a potential employer to view an individual's social media page prior to a job interview, even if the candidate has applied privacy settings to make this page private"

Source: TUC/BritainThinks

Trust

Surveillance can be a symptom of a bad relationship between an employer and employee. People should be trusted to do their job, and judged by their output rather than their input. We like to feel trusted by those we’re working for, but surveillance implies the exact opposite. As a result, monitoring employees too closely can harm the relationship between them and their employer.

A strong majority of workers (65 per cent) believe that the introduction of a new type of surveillance would have a damaging impact on their relationship with their employer.
 

"Introducing new technologies to monitor the workplace will damage trust between workers and employers"

Source: TUC/BritainThinks

Trust works both ways. It’s not just that workers worry about whether their employer trusts them, they’re also worried about what an employer is going to do with the monitoring data being collected.

Say if I don’t like the look of you, say I don’t like your glasses, can I just go trawling through until I find something?

Call centre worker, Manchester

One of the risks when surveillance data is collected is that employers can build up a bank of data so they can sack someone that they take a disliking to. This is something we heard about during our qualitative research, with one worker telling us that a previous employer would “manage people out” of the company using surveillance. “They definitely used it to get rid of people,” he said. “They could listen back through all your recordings to find the one mistake you made if they wanted.”

Managing people out using surveillance isn’t always an intentional act. Workplace monitoring can often be a blunt tool for measuring performance that leads to workers being penalised unfairly. For example, Simon, a gas technician for a large energy, told us that his performance is monitored by tracking how long he spends on each job. This isn’t an accurate way of measuring performance, and doesn’t take into account the realities of his job.

I get 18 minutes to fit a length of pipe. If I go over, the system tells my boss, who then asks why I’m taking too long. But sometimes, you have to move a sofa or lift a carpet to get to the pipe. There’s no room for error.

Simon, a gas technician for a large energy company.

Another big concern is that “micro-management” via monitoring could lead to a rise in discrimination in the workplace. If an employer can use data to get rid of a staff member they dislike, it’s not hard to imagine how this could be used in a discriminatory way.

Two-thirds of workers (66 per cent) think that unless workplace monitoring is carefully regulated, it could increase discrimination. Only a very small minority disagreed with this. 
 

"Unless carefully regulated, workplace monitoring could increase discrimination in the workplace"

Source: TUC/BritainThinks

Mixed views on the benefits of surveillance

Workplace monitoring can have some benefits for workers. The most obvious are health and safety related. Wearable cameras, for example, can provide extra protection for security staff and parking attendants who face potential violence in their jobs. Tracking the location of staff within the building via access cards allows an employer to know where they are in case of a fire. Similarly, tracking the location of workers who travel or work alone as part of their job can give them much greater security.

There’s also benefits unrelated to health and safety. Some workers in call centres, for example, thought an upside of calls being recorded is that the recordings could prove them right if a customer claimed that they had said something on the phone which they hadn’t.

However, working people are sceptical about the potential benefits of workplace monitoring. For each of these positives, there’s plenty of negatives, many of which have been set out above. Even in terms of health and safety, monitoring can provide extra security, but it can also cause added stress.

Only a quarter (25 per cent) feel that surveillance will have more benefits for workers than downsides, while 38 per cent disagree that surveillance has more positives than downsides. A sizeable proportion are uncertain or don’t know.
 

"I think that workplace monitoring will become more commonplace in the future than it is now"

Source: TUC/BritainThinks

Those  who have more experience of workplace monitoring are more likely to be aware of both the benefits and negatives of surveillance. Around a third (32 per cent) of people who told us that at least one type of surveillance was very likely to be happening in their workplace agreed or strongly agreed that surveillance had more benefits for workers than negatives. 

This rose to 42 per cent among people who thought it very likely that three or more forms were very likely to be happening at their workplace, and dropped to just 15 per cent among those who felt it was unlikely any surveillance was being used by their employer.

Percentage of workers who agree or agree strongly that increased workplace has more benefits than downsides for workers

Percentage of workers who agree or agree strongly that increased workplace has more benefits than downsides for workers (chart)
Source: TUC/BritainThinks

Despite being more positive about the potential benefits of increased surveillance, those with experience of workplace monitoring were far more likely to think that it could damage trust or lead to discrimination if left unregulated. They’re also more likely to support bringing in a legal requirement for employers to consult staff before introducing surveillance.

Percentage of workers who agree or strongly agree with each statement 

Percentage of workers who agree or strongly agree with each statement (chart)
Source: TUC/BritainThinks

Fear of the future

Familiarity with a type of surveillance tends to be linked to how acceptable workers find it. In other words, workers are more likely to think that forms of workplace surveillance that are common are more acceptable.

An exception to this trend is the monitoring of social media use outside work hours. It’s one of the more common forms of surveillance, with around a third of working people (33 per cent) saying it’s fairly or very likely to be happening in their workplace. However, only around one-in-five people consider it acceptable (22 per cent).
 

The relationship between how common a type of surveillance is and how acceptable workers find it

The relationship between how common a type of surveillance is and how acceptable workers find it (chart)
Source: TUC/BritainThinks

This link between how common a form of surveillance is and how widely accepted it is could mean one of two things. Either:

  • Workers have grown used to the surveillance they’ve experienced and have a sense of futility about changing it; or
  • Employers have introduced acceptable surveillance methods and avoided those that are unacceptable

We suspect that it might be the former due to the high number of workers who feel they would be unable to challenge workplace monitoring if they felt uncomfortable with it. According to our research, only 38 per cent of workers would feel able to do this.
 

"If I felt uncomfortable with a form of workplace monitoring used in my workplace, I would be able to challenge this and stop it from happening"

Source: TUC/BritainThinks

A lot of working people think that workplace monitoring is going to increase, yet have serious concerns about the risks of this. To make matters worse, they feel powerless to change it.

To avoid the risks of workplace monitoring, we need to shift some of the power away from employers who can use surveillance with little justification and with no consultation with staff. In the next section, we show that there’s clear demand from workers for this power dynamic to change. Working people want some say over how they’re monitored.