Opinion: Is Big Brother a Big Brother?

The ability to monitor employees' Internet and e-mail use places businesses at an interesting crossroad. Major technological advances over the past five or six years have resulted in most workplaces being wired for e-mail and Internet access. The explosive growth in the number of employees connected to the Internet is staggering. By 2002, it's estimated, more than 88 million users in the United States alone will be connected to the Internet at work. Because work connections are typically faster than those in the home, it's no surprise that workers admit to doing personal tasks on company time using company computers. In a survey of corporate Internet usage, Elron Software, a maker of monitoring software, found that one in three respondents admitted to spending more than two-and-a-half hours a week online for personal reasons.

The question employers now face is what, if anything, to do about employee waywardness. If the accelerating sales of corporate Internet access monitoring and control products are any indication, the answer increasingly seems to be to keep tabs on every move an employee makes online. In 1998, sales of such products stood around US$31 million. By 2003, according to IDC, those sales will hit $260 million, representing a growth rate of more than 50 percent a year.

Certainly, companies have every right to make sure that their employees are productive and not engaging in any illegal activity on the Internet while at work. And indeed, many seem to be taking such precautions: 54 percent of employers surveyed by the American Management Association earlier this year are currently monitoring their employees' Internet connections; 38 percent review e-mail messages, up from 15 percent in 1997.

But spending resources on such surveillance is not without risk. For one thing, an unintended consequence of spying on employees as they work is that the vast majority of productive workers could become demoralised and--like my friend who refuses to respond to e-mail--ultimately be less productive and less trusting of their employers. Companies "that monitor e-mail traffic or use the power of modern technology to act as Big Brother to the employees are dehumanising the work environment," said Allan A. Kennedy, a management consultant and coauthor of The New Corporate Cultures (Perseus, 1999), in a column I wrote about the Edward Jones case last year. [That case involved instances of "inappropriate" e-mail being sent within the company. An investigation by human resources led to numerous firings and reprimands.] The question of whether it makes sense to embrace any new technology simply because we can "touches on the issue of technological determinism--the notion that we are somehow in the thrall of technology, unable to use it thoughtfully and responsibly," says Richard Spinello, an associate research professor at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College and the author of Cyberethics: Morality and Law in Cyberspace (Jones and Bartlett, 2000). Spinello cites Max Weber, the early 20th century sociologist and author, who regarded technology as "an iron cage" in which workers become ensnared. "In my view," says Spinello, "this evocative term comes close to describing the current workplace."

So which is technology to be: a bearer of freedom or of unseen shackles? The advent of new technologies raises an important ethical issue for employers. Since these new tools represent unprecedented opportunities for workplace monitoring and control, do we rationalise corporate policy to fit the opportunity? In other words, do technological developments become the foundation for ethics in the workplace?

"Technology is most controlling when we lose sight of how pervasive and insidious it is and can be," observes Daryl Koehn, director of the Center for Business Ethics at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. "Businesses have spent way too much time and money in monitoring people. A business has a choice: It can either spend lots of money blocking websites, recording keystrokes, running algorithms to detect inappropriate use of corporate assets, or it can assume that most people want to do the right thing most of the time."

Koehn believes that businesses "must decide whether they are going to manage to the 98.5 percent of employees, vendors and customers who are decent, or to the very small percentage who are running scams of one sort or another." Companies that assume the worst of people and monitor their every move "will never have a culture characterised by integrity, empowerment, quality and spontaneous fun. At best, it will have a culture of compliance."

But better still than fretting over monitoring of any type--and investing the valuable time and resources that monitoring can take--is to use new technology in a way that's relevant to your core business.

"I'm sure that there's a certain amount of personal use going on," says Martin Babinec, CEO of TriNet, a San Leandro, Calif.-based company that supplies businesses with payroll, benefits and human-resource support. "But we concentrate on things that are more production-oriented and specific to the task." Babinec and his 319 employees have used new technology to build an intranet that allows the entire staff to share financial information about the company with one another. As practitioners of what's been called open-book management, TriNet embraces technology not as a tool for catching willful employees but as a way to share information and build trust by focusing everyone in the business on the company's core purposes.

Ultimately, the true choice for any company is whether to allow new technology to define the business. It seems the better model would be to let people decide what kind of culture and work environment is needed, and then let those decisions dictate which technologies are best suited to reach those ends. It's a simple enough choice; but because technology happens to us so quickly, it often blinds us to some of the pitfalls that will follow in its wake.

Of course, if you've attracted the right people to your business in the first place, such questions become irrelevant. "We have a very structured hiring process," says Babinec. "We look for qualities that are important for what we believe will predict the person's success in this environment. If we hire the right person to begin with, then we really don't have to spend a lot of time monitoring his activity and behavior or things that other companies do have to worry about."

At a time when distractions can cost any company competitive advantage, the real goal should be to find the right people, uncage them and embrace the technology that helps them do their jobs.

Jeffrey L. Seglin (jseglin@post.harvard.edu) is the author of The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart (John Wiley & Sons, 2000). He teaches in the writing, literature and publishing department at Emerson College in Boston.

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