Tech workers would rather quit than work for Big Brother bosses

Half of techies would leave their jobs if companies surveilled them using methods like keystroke monitoring
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photo: Getty Images

· 4 min read

Ever since Frederick Winslow Taylor invented so-called scientific management by cooking the books on research into pig-iron loading rates, corporate management has been obsessed with oft-dubious productivity. And courtesy of surging rates of remote work that’s running up against pushback from bosses, workplace surveillance appears to have become more common.

And tech workers despise the idea, according to a recent survey by Morning Consult, which found around half would rather quit than subject themselves to such surveillance.

The survey, conducted using a sample size of 750 workers, found that 56% of tech workers would resign if their employer began recording audio or video through their computers. 51% said they would quit in response to productivity-monitoring face-recognition software, while just under half said they would quit in response to keystroke monitoring or screenshots of their computer screens. Over half said they wouldn’t take a new job at a company that employed such techniques.

It might seem reassuring, then, that at least 7 in 10 respondents thought their workplace did not use surveillance to monitor their productivity, while about 75% of those would be surprised to find out otherwise. Unfortunately, experts consulted by IT Brew said that today’s economy is ripe for the expansion of employer surveillance into formerly immune professions, despite its potential to distort the dynamics of the workplace, and many workers are likely already monitored, whether they realize it or not.

“Bless their hearts,” J.S. Nelson, an associate professor at Villanova Law specializing in business ethics, told IT Brew. She said “almost everybody who’s working for a company of over 500…should expect that they’re being surveilled.”

Nelson said that surveillance is often an excuse for shoddy management techniques and a substitute for good communication. She added that companies run the risk of creating a “miserable experience” and higher turnover, which would be particularly bad for industries like tech where “people are your greatest assets.”

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“It’s experienced as highly invasive,” Nelson warned, “particularly by your star performers and by women, minorities, and others, who are often the DE&I candidates that you’ve worked really hard to hire, and now experience surveillance as particularly invasive, and disconcerting, and inappropriate.”

Kathryn Zickuhr, a labor market policy analyst at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, told IT Brew that there were numerous unknowns about workplace surveillance, ranging from a lack of “granular data about the extent of monitoring” to a paucity of data showing many techniques help productivity in the first place.

“Most of the time, there’s no legal requirement for companies to disclose precisely the type of monitoring they’re doing or at all or how they make decisions based on that information,” Zickuhr said. She pointed to the example of keystroke monitoring, which sometimes uses one’s typing pace as a proxy for productivity, adding that it is  “really worrisome when you think about how many of these technologies are being implemented and integrated into work practices without a lot of understanding of what is really going on under the hood.”

The survey “really highlights that people do not like this, they do not feel trusted, they do not feel valued,” Nelson said. “They do not feel respected, and your best people who have choices will get out of there.”—TM

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