Office workers have long been warned that their emails and online chats via work channels are not private. But a new AI-based tool seizes on the opportunity to mine employee communication data in an active way–by using communication on Slack to analyze worker morale.

A Tokyo-based company called AIR–which provides HR tools–has created a software product called Vibe that can search Slack messages on public channels for clues about employee satisfaction. It does this by scanning for keywords and emojis that represent an employee’s state of mind, based on representations of five emotions: Happiness, irritation, disapproval, disappointment, and stress.

When the tool detects changes in morale, it can send notifications to managers.

Vibe is meant to solve an important problem–the lack of knowledge, from managers, about how their teams are feeling. In this way, it could provide insight that could potentially be used by management to spot problems, and to help improve morale, if necessary.

Frederic Peyrot, AIR’s COO, recently told ZDNet that the company saw “a disconnect between managers and team members,” and that setting individual meetings with employees is not always doable, especially in organizations that are large and spread out geographically. Vibe is meant to gauge what helps team morale rise, Peyrot said, and to act as a learning tool for management. For $120 per month, businesses get the deluxe model (there’s also a free version, and a $50 per month option).

A forthcoming “reports” feature could allow businesses access to more in-depth insights. Currently, third party surveys gauging morale can run in the ballpark of $50,000, Peyrot said.

While Vibe is not the only tool on the market, most other attempts to gauge employee morale center around surveys and reported information, which can be skewed. And by using AI to conduct sentiment analysis, Vibe relies on hidden cues, which may prove more accurate–and can deliver results faster, via a real-time “morale graph.”

Currently, more than 500 global employers use Vibe, 80% of which are US-based. n addition to working with Slack’s 5 million daily active users, AIR hopes to break into other platforms, like Yammer and Facebook, as well.

The tool, however, raises privacy concerns.

SEE: Employee Privacy Policy (Tech Pro Research)

Although Vibe does not track individual communication between workers, its use is not always transparent. Managers are not required to disclose the use of Vibe to team members, although AIR recommends that they do. And while the use of Vibe to improve employee morale is arguably a plus, tracking for “engagement” has a downside–the potential for employee communication to be misunderstood, taken out of context, or used as rationale for layoffs.

Perhaps it’s a good lesson for employees to watch what they say online. “People in IT departments certainly have access to everything you do on the network, and if you work for a public agency, like a university, they are required by law to keep all your emails, and may make them public if a request is received,” said Roman Yampolskiy, director of the Cybersecurity Lab at the University of Louisville. “The best strategy is to assume that your communications will be published, and act accordingly.”

He added, “Emotion detection is a form of indirect mind reading, which is also a privacy problem.”

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