The Rise of Employee Informatics

By Scott B.

Trying to make employees work more efficiently isn’t a new project – from Taylorism to 360-degree reviews, an entire industry has emerged to analyze and optimize workforce productivity. However, never before has the sheer amount of data, and immense processing power, been available in a way that allow companies to analyze employee performance in real-time, and without human intervention.

 

The New York Times reported last week about the growing trend of “employee informatics”, where companies are using employee data and the tools of big data to measure employee habits. “Today,” the Times reports, “every e-mail, instant message, phone call, line of written code and mouse-click leaves a digital signal. These patterns can now be inexpensively collected and mined for insights into how people work and communicate, potentially opening doors to more efficiency and innovation within companies.” These are the same types of tools that advertising companies use for behavioral ad targeting, but since the data available on employees is so much richer, the privacy risks are also greatly increased. Furthermore, the employee-employer relationship gives rise to a far greater risk of privacy harm.

 

IBM’s 1.3 billion dollar acquisition of Kenexa in August, 2012 appears to be a sign of things to come. According to Forbes.com, “Kenexa is a consulting, content, and technology company which plays in many different parts of the talent management market.” Through the purchase, IBM will be able to integrate its data processing power and know-how with the abundant data and HR industry connections that Kenexa has established. The Times article also reports that companies like Google, and organizations like the NYU Langone Medical Center, have utilized “constant measurement” to test employee traits.

 

How do the Fair Information Practices (FIPs) fare when corporations are tracking every move their employees make in the workplace? To prevent employee abuse, meaningful notice and consent should be important components of extensive workplace data collection and analysis. Employees should also be able to view and correct any data collected about them. It would also be beneficial to require that any measurement methodology used be disclosed to employees so that they can see why their work is being praised or criticized. Particularly when employee informatics leads to demotion or firing, reckless reliance on inaccurate employee analytics is deeply problematic. Furthermore, data security is a big concern, particularly when confidential employee data is shared with third parties such as IBM.
Employee creativity is also at risk when work is so closely monitored, and companies might find these monitoring strategies to be counterproductive when employees try to beat the system rather than produce their best work. Even the most mundane jobs include elements of creativity, such as process optimization. Will the chilling effect of constant workplace surveillance serve to chill employee creativity in the same way that public surveillance chills free speech and expression? While the workplace is not considered a particularly private environment, the extension of surveillance to the workplace represents another space where persistent surveillance is becoming the norm. As these surveillance programs become increasingly common, it would be useful for a government agency (presumably the Department of Labor) to oversee the regulation of these tools to ensure they are responsibly implemented.