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Data Privacy and Ownership: When People Analytics Goes Toxic

gareth jones

The debate on Privacy and Ownership of Employee Data

By Gareth Jones - Chief Operating Officer, Headstart AI.

Gareth will be at People Analytics World 2018, April, London - book your place and don't miss out.

In my last post for the People Analytics Forum blog, I reflected on the fact that we are at the point of new discoveries with data and analytics, and very positive ones too. Not only are we debunking myths around what really makes people tick, we now have real data and insight that helps us understand the impact on performance and potential of the environments we work in. Although we are still not 100% convinced about sharing certain types of data, we can see that new insights driven by data models that crash together health, calendar, performance, assessment data etc gives us a level of understanding that drives real value.

But not all is good in the world of people data, especially when it comes to subject of ‘monitoring’. This recent article in the Guardian about workplace surveillance makes sobering reading. Our ability to monitor and listen in to what the employee is doing every moment of the day goes far beyond anything we’ve been able to do before. 'What can be tracked, will be tracked' seems to be the new mantra, right down to every keystroke you make. Or, if you are a freelancer or home worker, that could include taking a picture of you every ten seconds via your webcam.

There are, of course, justifications aplenty from the analytics organisations peddling such products. Brad Miller, CEO of Awareness Technologies likens the rank and file to ‘children’ when he says:

 "If you are a parent and you have a teenage son or daughter coming home late and not doing their homework you might wonder what they are doing. It’s the same as employees,”


Parent/child comparisons in the workplace? Really? Have we not moved on from this? Apparently not. And in case you were wondering, the ‘parents’ - in this case, the Managers - can choose whether to turn their own cameras on or not.

Putting you on the watch list because your marriage has hit the skids? I may be wrong but I don’t yet think that anyone has proven a correlation between  marital status and your propensity to steal. What the hell, why don’t we throw in all new parents too, on the basis that kids can be eye-wateringly expensive.

Just because we can measure something, doesn’t mean we should.

See what happened at People Analytics World last year

It’s incredible how obsessed we are becoming with micromanaging what someone does, and not just between the hours of 9 and 5. We clearly think nothing of setting an expectation that employees need to be on point, and totally dedicating all that work time to the organisation.  And yet, at the drop of a hat, organisations increasingly feel it’s absolutely fine to blow a hole in people’s weekends and evenings too, without any consideration for the fact that, technically, this is my time, not work time.

In my view, we are in danger of getting this all wrong. We are insuring ourselves against poor hiring by monitoring afterwards. This is analysing the condition of the horse once the gate has already been opened. It’s madness - constant treatment of symptoms instead of dealing with the root cause. Rather than develop tools and processes to catch a fraudster in the act (when it’s arguably too late) why are we not putting that energy and effort into using data and data science to identify those with the propensity to defraud, or not, in the selection and screening process? Because people, hello, it can be done.

My final thought on this is about the data itself. Do any of these intrusive monitoring solutions provide the data and insight in real time to the person who should arguably own the data - i.e. the employee? If someone is going to snap a picture of me every 10 seconds, or monitor every keystroke I type, or scan my Facebook profile for signs of a collapse in my personal life, I deserve to know. And I should see the data too.

I think this is a really big issue. It’s my data. I don’t care that it’s created on your time, or even through your device. Without me, there is no data in the first place. And if an organisation is going to judge me in any way, shape or form because of it, I want to be part of that judgement too.

We are finally entering the era of being able to put real insight about people into the hands of the organisation, especially the HR function, who have for decades lacked any really credible data to back up assumptions or execute strategies. A small amount of insight in the right hands can deliver transformational results for good. However, in the wrong hands, it can do deep and lasting damage.

If we are not careful here, we could set the employer-employee dynamic back by decades.

By Gareth Jones.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Tucana.