If You Don’t Trust Your Employees, Why Did You Hire Them?

Higher productivity from employees requires trust—not surveillance.

Everyone appreciates a little peace of mind, right? That’s why I purchased a GPS tracker for my wife’s car as a Christmas present last year. It seemed like a great gift. She’s always on the map so this will help me make sure she’s doing what she’s supposed to be doing. The device even came with a neat app that lets me track her phone too!

As you’d imagine, she was less than thrilled about my gift. I got a lecture about lack of trust, and how invasive I was being. But how can I trust my own wife if she won’t let me see what she’s up to 24/7?

I can already hear the angry clacking of keyboards. Let me assure you that I’m kidding. But if you were immediately aghast at the idea that I would install a tracker on my wife’s car and try to pass it off as a good thing, I agree with the sentiment. In fact, I hope we can all agree that the kind of mistrust implied by such a “gift” has no place in a good, stable relationship.

That’s why I’m surprised by how many leaders are fully in favor of employee monitoring tools and software. While the relationship between employers and employees is nowhere near as close as one between a husband and wife, it is a relationship, nonetheless. And the foundation of any strong relationship is trust. If you can’t trust your employees, why did you hire them in the first place?

It’s 2023, Not 1984

Flexible work has increasingly become the new norm for many companies. In response, 60% of companies with remote workers are using employee monitoring software, and another 17% are considering implementing it, according to a survey from Digital.com. However, more than half of tech workers would leave their jobs if their employer insisted on using tracking tools to monitor their productivity, per a survey by the business intelligence company Morning Consult. Unfortunately, some employees don’t know they are being monitored. And the ones who are aware are strongly opposed to it.

The reason most often provided by employers for using monitoring tools is to better understand how employees spend their time. There are also monitoring tools and software that serve the important purpose of keeping company and employee data safe by monitoring web traffic and enforcing cybersecurity rules. But the use of software and tools that are strictly in-place to monitor employee activity and productivity implies a low-trust environment. And according to Forrester’s predictions for the year ahead, trust is expected to be a high priority for businesses as they head into 2023.

In the quest to ensure maximum employee productivity, employers may be achieving the opposite effect with monitoring tools. Nobody likes feeling spied on, and when it’s an employer doing the spying, employees are likely to feel increased stress and anxiety, if not outright resentment. Knowing that “big brother” is watching can lead to decreased morale and increased burnout for even the most productive employees.

You Can’t (and Shouldn’t) See Everything

The goal of implementing monitoring software is to reduce employee’s ability to break rules and increase productivity. However, it often has the opposite effect. Surveilling workers causes them to subconsciously feel less responsible for their behavior, which makes them more likely to want to break rules. What’s more, by focusing only on the actions people take, these tools ignore the other aspects of work that contribute to productivity. Many jobs are more about strategy, creativity, and other soft skills that employers can’t quantify by looking at screen time or keystrokes.

Workers report that productivity tracking software only accounts for work performed digitally and doesn’t factor in valuable work performed offline, such as phone calls, writing or reviewing printed documents, brainstorming and planning, etc. This creates inaccurate depictions of a worker’s actual productivity throughout the workday.

In fact, The New York Times found that therapists and social workers at a major U.S. healthcare company who were marked “idle” when they didn’t use their keyboard for more than a short while (including during appointments with patients!), were often penalized. The inaccurate way that tracking tools quantify productivity has also created financial consequences for employees. In addition to other disciplinary actions, employers have even docked their employees’ pay based on the time their software deems “unproductive.”

As a leader myself, I see this as companies grossly overstepping. It’s important for us all to remember that employees are paid to do the work they are assigned and meet the goals set out for them. They are not paid to be glued to their keyboards staring at a screen during working hours.

Trust and Transparency Are a Better Way Forward

There are potential legal consequences for companies using employee monitoring tools, including claims of discrimination, invasion of privacy, and even unfair labor practices. In fact, a proposed new ordinance has been introduced before the NYC Council that would limit the use of electronic monitoring in disciplining and discharging employees, among other limitations. Despite the number of employers using data surveillance software to monitor employees doubling since the start of the pandemic, opposition to these tools is growing.

If a company insists on using monitoring tools, leaders must give employees visibility into what is being monitored and how it contributes to their evaluations. It’s also important for employees to have access to the data that is being collected about them and to know how it is being used. What’s more, transparency around the data that is collected can be used to reinforce productive behavior, rather than punish a perceived lack of productivity.

However, the investment into monitoring tools is still better used on ways to engage employees. Efforts to increase communication and employee recognition are a good place to start. And further investment in tools that improve collaboration and communication will be better for employee morale and productivity than any surveillance tool ever could be.

It seems to me that companies are more worried about maintaining power and control over employees than they are about actual employee productivity. This leads to a toxic work environment and company culture. The people who work for us are not dots on a map, numbers on a screen, or lines in a spreadsheet. We all have lives, families, and obligations outside of work. And in an age where work and life is now fully integrated, the traditional 9-5 workday is over. Results should matter more than punching a clock.

It’s reasonable to expect employees to do work during working hours. But the point of providing a flexible work environment should be to provide actual flexibility. “Every move you make and every step you take; I’ll be watching you,” sounds great when Sting sings it – much less so as company policy.


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