A Warning About the Combination of Management Culture & Surveillance

Courtesy of J.S. Nelson

Why should nurses in a Florida hospital wear GPS tracking devices that show exactly where they are on the ward floors every moment of every shift? Why should my manager know through a fitness tracker that I had a poor night’s sleep, or when I am working out because my heart rate outside the office is elevated? Why do I have to be implanted with a microchip in order to check out of the office cafeteria?

Why should managers even want such information? Why, in the relationship between workers and management—which is already fraught with potentials for coercion and abuse—should these be standard practices in which consent may not be truly voluntary?

In Management Culture & Surveillance, my forthcoming article for the Berle XI Symposium on Corporate Culture, I argue that we should be worried about overreaches of management control in the use of workplace surveillance. Based on new evidence of modern management’s roots in the slave plantations of the U.S. South and West Indies, we should be particularly concerned about management arguments for surveillance based on a businesses’ perceived need for increased productivity and enterprise control.

In their 2017 landmark article, Limitless Worker Surveillance, Professors Ajunwa, Crawford, and Schultz detail the ineffectiveness of U.S. privacy laws to prevent invasive workplace surveillance, and they note that “technologies, both digital and otherwise, have become the primary tools of employee monitoring.” As they summarize workplace conditions in the U.S., “[t]he rapid erosion of technological and economic constraints on employee monitoring has magnified the invasiveness of surveillance activities.”

My article picks up where Professors Ajunwa, Crawford, and Schultz leave off to discuss elements of limitless worker surveillance that have not been otherwise directly addressed in the law-review literature. New work in history and management studies is unearthing the roots of modern management techniques as developed in the slave plantations of the U.S. South and West Indies. Attempts to sanitize these techniques’ origins occurred within living memory of the Civil War when engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor claimed them as part of his system of scientific management. Nonetheless, Congress at the time was not fooled. In questioning and in Taylor’s testimony before Congress in 1911–1912, we have the shape of the modern debate over the impact that these management techniques have on workers. What is different about today’s version of the debate is how much more invasive technological surveillance has become.

Moreover, in connecting the concerns from the Congressional debate to modern day, my article describes some of the ways in which the harms it highlights live close to the surface of our modern consciousness in the popular form of zombies (with their history in West Indian slavery) and the emotionally disconnected state of feeling like a human robot. The Article concludes with initial suggestions for better scrutinizing why management needs certain data from workers, and how harmful the collection of that data may be to the workers’ experience.

The time to be thoughtful about such questions is now. Business interests in surveillance and its accompanying behavioural modification techniques will only become stronger as businesses watch their competitors adopt the same technology.

There must be boundaries in the endless pursuit of owners’ aggregation of profits. We cannot easily expect management to come to this conclusion itself, nor in a competitive economy, expect that it will have the support of boards and investors to walk such a different road alone.

My article does not directly corollate the harm of modern limitless surveillance with the vastly more debilitating combinations of harms suffered from historic slavery, but it argues that there are harms from limitless worker surveillance that must be both acknowledged and mitigated. We will have to struggle publicly with the proper establishment of these boundaries together.

I argue that future principles for the use of worker surveillance and data should ask:

  • Who is impacted? This is an inquiry into how extensive the surveillance is and who experiences it. For example, why do businesses need to install GPS monitoring on all their workers’ phones if only a few of them ever leave the workplace for business purposes during business hours?
  • Degree of impact? This is an analysis of the impact the type of surveillance will have on the psyche of workers. Is it surveillance that they can meaningfully turn off when they are legitimately “backstage”? Will this surveillance yield information that is not the manager’s legitimate business or that may have discriminatory impact such as women’s fertility status and menstrual cycle?
  • How monitoring is experienced? This is a concern that certain types of monitoring are experienced as particularly oppressive, invasive, or demoralizing. Do the workers have to be implanted with a microchip that is not easily removed? Do the workers have to be strapped into an exoskeleton that transports them from place to place or wear a wrist band that guides their hands with haptic feedback to the location that the manager desires?
  • Are the data needed? This is a question about whether all the data are needed and how much additional information not necessary to managers may be swept up in its collection. If, for example, managers establish a specific need for GPS monitoring during certain times, do they need workers to wear trackers that also collect health information such as heartbeat, steps walked, sleep patterns, temperature, and so on?
  • Is the effort counterproductive in the long-term? This is a discussion about the long-term culture and impact that too much surveillance has on the workplace. Is it changing the workplace to destroy worker morale and ethical engagement? This set of concerns seeks to flip the lens through which both businesses and regulators have been thinking about workplace surveillance to consider its corrosive effects.

Such issues need to be openly debated in the light of day, and with full realization of how dark the path of modern management has been. My next article will continue to frame these questions for potential legislation and judicial review.

One thought on “A Warning About the Combination of Management Culture & Surveillance

  • EXCELLENT article raising questions the general public should be asking about the collection of personal data.
    Worker’s may feel they don’t have a choice to challenge the collection of personal data during work hours, not understanding how the data collection goes beyond work.
    The American public doesn’t know or understand how much of their personal data is being collected all day, every day about their individual lives.

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