When many companies shifted to remote work environments during the pandemic, some employers also felt the need to monitor their employees to track productivity and deter rule-breaking. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Chase Thiel, Julena Bonner, John Bush, David Welsh, and Niharika Garud explain why employee monitoring backfires and offer suggestions to treat employees fairly while ensuring accountability.
Chase Thiel is the Bill Daniels Chair of Business Ethics at the University of Wyoming. Julena Bonner is an associate professor of management in the marketing and strategy department Marketing and Strategy Department of the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University. John Bush is an associate professor of management in the College of Business at the University of Central Florida. David Welsh is an associate professor in the Department of Management and Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business. And Niharika Garud is an associate professor in the Department of Management and Marketing at University of Melbourne's Faculty of Business & Economics.
Why employee monitoring systems backfire
In a study conducted by the authors, over 100 U.S. employees were surveyed—some of whom were monitored at work and some of whom were not. Overall, the authors found that employees who were monitored were much more likely to take unscheduled breaks, ignore instructions, damage workplace property, steal office supplies, and intentionally work at a slower rate, in addition to other rule-breaking behaviors.
However, since this survey only determined correlation, they conducted a second, experimental study to prove causation. In the second study, the authors asked another 200 U.S.-based employees to complete a series of tasks—and half of them were told that they would be under digital surveillance while working. When the authors gave supervised participants an opportunity to cheat, they found that those who were told they were being monitored were actually more likely to cheat compared with those who did not think they were being monitored.
According to the authors, people are generally "motivated to do the right thing by a combination of external factors," including the threat of punishment or promise of reward, as well as their own moral compass.
When the authors surveyed the participants in both studies, they found that those who were monitored were more likely to report that the authority figure overseeing their surveillance was responsible for any misconduct, while those who were not monitored were more likely to take accountability for their actions.
"This reduction in agency in turn made the monitored employees more likely to act contrary to their own moral standards, ultimately leading them to engage in behavior that they would otherwise consider immoral," the authors write.
How to use monitoring as a tool to empower—not punish—employees
While the authors acknowledge that"[b]eing monitored is likely to always have at least some negative impact on people's sense of agency and moral responsibility," they note that their studies identified one technique that can reduce this effect. According to the authors, employees "are less likely to suffer a drop in agency and are thus less likely to lose their sense of moral responsibility in response to monitoring" when they feel like they are being treated fairly.
In their experiment, the authors increased participants' perceptions of employer fairness by varying how respectful the administrator was when interacting with the participants, and whether they received the cash reward they were promised. Ultimately, they found that monitored participants who felt they were treated fairly were less likely to cheat.
Fortunately, "[t]here are countless ways leaders can enhance perceptions of justice (and thus preserve employees' sense of agency)." To start, the authors suggest that leaders look for ways to give their employees some "visibility and input into when surveillance is appropriate and when it should be off-limits — and then stick to those boundaries," instead of "unilaterally implementing a monitoring system."
Leaders should also prioritize communicating openly with employees about what data will be collected and how it will be used.
"When used right, monitoring employees can prevent accidents, boost performance, and improve overall wellbeing," the authors write. However, their research suggests that employee monitoring "can also reduce employees' sense of agency and personal responsibility, potentially increasing the prevalence of the very behaviors that these systems are meant to deter."
"To mitigate this risk, leaders must ensure that they treat employees fairly, foster accountability, and frame monitoring as a tool for empowering — not punishing — employees," they add. (Thiel et al., Harvard Business Review, 6/27)