Let's Eavesdrop On Managers
Article published in Computerworld, 4/20/92

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By Gary T. Marx

U.S. managers seem to believe that electronic monitoring is vital to productivity. I'd like to suggest that if they believe this so strongly, they ought to be willing to undergo the same kind of scrutiny.

Approximately 10 million American workers are already subject to secret electronic monitoring of their computer, telephone and face-to-face communications, and the sale of work monitoring systems continues to increase rapidly.

Keystrokes and time away from the computer are counted. Computer files are examined. Locations are electronically tracked. Telephone calls are listened to and recorded, and video cameras constantly roll ... in some cases even in employee lounge areas.

'Workers Shouldn't Mind'

Many workers resent such monitoring. They feel invaded, demeaned and treated like untrustworthy children. Yet important segments of management argue that employees shouldn't feel this way. These managers oppose any efforts to curtail their freedom to monitor.

Advocates of electronic monitoring point to a number of benefits. Monitoring, they say, increases productivity, provides better accountability, fosters job improvement through feedback, protects innocent employees from unfair accusations and ensures better service for consumers. Compliance with laws and government regulations is improved through monitoring, they add, and the risk of litigation is lowered.

The theory is that behavior improves because employees never know when they might be watched.

While I am certainly not an advocate of unrestrained monitoring, it does seem only fair that if, in fact, management believes these things, the same methods and technologies should be applied to managers and higher level executives.

In fact, the case for monitoring managers and executives is much stronger than for monitoring those lower in the hierarchy, because if the former are performing inadequately or illegally, much greater damage can be done.

We might even adopt a principle that the more central a position and the higher the costs from poor performance, the greater should be the degree of monitoring.

If management is sometimes incapable of watching itself (as has certainly proved to be the case in sectors such as banking, insurance, medicine, defense contracting and environmental protection), we might consider having monitoring units made up of workers, stockholders and consumers watch the managers who are watching others.

Turnabout Is Fair Play

Imagine what could be uncovered if a full audio and visual record of all the job-related behavior of senior executives and managers was available or if their files were subject to the same oversight as those of data-entry clerks.

Of course, these managers would have to be given fair warning and guaranteed due process, and the confidentiality of their communications would have to be respected.

Furthermore, if weaknesses in performance were found, procedures violated and quotas not met, efforts would have to be made to rehabilitate these individuals through counseling and retraining.

Equity and efficiency would seem to require that invasive tactics used against the most powerless member of an organization also ought to be used against the most powerful-particularly if these methods are as effective as advocates claim. The credibility of those in management who advocate monitoring increases to the extent that they are willing to apply the same techniques to themselves.

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