Big Brother, Inc.

Why are businesses spying on their own employees more and more? Because they can.

Today it's not unusual for a job application in any given American business to begin with urinalysis, a background check, and a battery of personality tests. (The lie detector, once a pre-employment tool in about 1 million cases a year, was effectively outlawed for that purpose in 1988 owing to its notorious inaccuracy.) Business is booming for companies that sell tests designed to ferret out the untrustworthy, the alienated, and the drugged. Some questionnaires are used to predict sympathy to unions as well.

The ACLU estimates that at least 2 million job applicants are required to take such tests every year--particularly in retail, where there is a high rate of employee theft. Indignant employees have sued; some have even won. A man applying for a job as a security guard at a Target Store in California received $22,000 as part of a class-action suit after being asked true and false questions like I fall in and out of love rather easily; I wish I were not bothered by thoughts about sex; I have no difficulty starting or holding my urine; I am very strongly attracted by members of my own sex; and I believe my sins are unpardonable. Target doesn't use that particular test anymore.

But other tests, supposedly less invasive, remain popular. Businesses like Personnel Systems Corporation promise that their Trustworthiness Attitude Survey and their Alienation Index Survey will provide employers a "view of the candidate's belief system." They are highly accurate, promotional literature claims, and, above all, easy: The employer is in charge of administering the test, as well as grading and interpreting the results. It's hard to guess what one would learn from the company's 100-question P.A.S.S. III survey, which veers between the asinine and the laughable. Among the statements to which one must respond: Marijuana smoking once or twice a day doesn't hurt anyone; Most employers demand too much for too little pay; Do you sometimes enjoy going against the rules and doing things you're not supposed to do?; Employee theft is chicken feed compared to income tax evasion by company executives; and If a person is clever enough to cheat someone out of a large sum of money, he ought to be allowed to keep it.

In 1991 an employee of the Sheraton Boston Hotel caught management secretly videotaping inside an employee changing room. Jeff Feuer, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, attorney who currently represents five employees suing the Sheraton Corporation for invasion of privacy, says the company claims it was looking for drug activity. "We believe they put the camera system in there for [different] reasons," counters Feuer. "It was focused on a dead-end area of the locker room where people would meet and talk. There was no sound on the tapes. But it was the beginning of a contract negotiation year. We think they put that in there to spy on union workers and meetings. They were [giving the video system a test run] to see if it was useful."

Employers are using cameras more and more to spy on their workforce. Video systems are sold as a way to keep cashiers honest and to keep a constant electronic eye on things. But surveillance these days is hardly limited to cameras. Technological developments are giving employers innumerable ways to be virtually anywhere in the workplace at any time. There are computer programs that keep a tally of keystrokes per minute. There are devices that allow employers to look in on other people's computer screens without their knowledge.

A 1991 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 11 percent of the companies asked regularly use video cameras for monitoring purposes; a 1993 MacWorld survey reported that 21 percent of the 301 businesses questioned had searched their employees' computer files and voice mail. Nine percent admitted to reading employee e-mail. "These data suggest that some 20 million Americans are subject to electronic monitoring," said the article, adding that fewer than a third of the companies who do surveillance give any advance warning.

Says Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of the Rhode Island-based Privacy Journal: "I think an issue to watch is the use of various monitoring devices like software that will keep an eye on productivity, work product, or concentration level. There was a company selling software that allowed employers to send out subliminal messages telling you not to steal or to pay attention. It was sold like a screen saver. The messages were flashed on the screen very quickly."

There are also telephone systems that record how many minutes are spent on each phone call as well as the phone numbers of incoming and outgoing calls. Often the conversations themselves are monitored, with or without the employee's knowledge. That includes when they are recorded on voice mail, as Michael Huffcut, a former supervisor at a New York state McDonald's, learned the hard way. He filed a lawsuit in December 1994 after his boss and a fellow employee made tapes of his voice mail messages. The messages, left for him by a lover, were subsequently played for Huffcut's wife. When he protested, he was fired. The case is currently pending.

Phone surveillance is especially prominent at local phone and utilities companies, where there is a lot of customer contact, and in the insurance industry, where there are liability issues regarding the language used to describe coverage to policyholders. Lou Gerber, a lobbyist for the Communications Workers of America, says listening in on phone calls, since it's directed almost exclusively at low-level employees, makes for a particularly effective bully stick. "If the argument is that it's necessary to monitor employees in order to ensure productivity, it might be more useful to secretly monitor high-level managers whose telephone conversations and actions are going to have more impact on this public utility than any low-level operator. But I'm not aware that that ever happens."

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