Avoid a privacy nightmare when using sensors to monitor employees

If you use sensor-based technology to manage employees' time, following these basic best practices will hopefully keep privacy concerns at bay.


Since the gas and diesel price hikes of the mid-2000s, industries across the board have taken hard looks at their energy expenditures and how to reduce them. Nowhere is this more apparent than in trucking, where logistics companies now employ sensors and global positioning systems (GPS) in their vehicles to monitor the driving habits of their drivers, such as how they use the brakes and whether they are heavy on the gas pedal. They also monitor vehicle whereabouts; this assures that trucks are using the most cost- and time-efficient routes, and that trucks are where they are supposed to be on their daily routes.

It's been good for business. Logistics companies have taken the "waste" out of routes; they are conserving energy; and their customers are pleased with improvements in on-time performance. Despite these gains, there is also a "people" side to management.

Sensor-based monitoring may affect employment rates

The trucking industry in particular is taxed to find new drivers. Young people who would normally be entering the industry as drivers are instead opting for jobs that require less travel, while some don't like the added "supervision" of sensors and trackers placed within trucks that monitor them throughout their day -- even on lunch breaks.

These reasons for the chronic shortage of drivers should prompt questions in the minds of managers, such as: do employees expect a certain amount of flexibility where they aren't always "under surveillance?" Can they hope to have this modicum of personal time and privacy anymore, given the growing number of sensors that are dispensed on railroad tracks, cars, trucks, supply chain lines, etc.? And is sensor-based monitoring making employment in some industries less attractive?

In the US, no court of law or HR department has made an exact determination on this employee privacy issue, except to say that an employee is fully accountable for his time to the business when he is on the job (this also includes his whereabouts). And while it seems that today's young employees appear to be less sensitive to personal privacy issues than those of past generations, employees (and their labor unions) are still sensitive about personal privacy, and when they should and should not be "on the clock."

Three best practices for sensor-based monitoring

So how do managers cope with this issue when there are no clearcut guidelines? Here are three guidelines that I suggest you follow.

1: Monitor performance, not personal time

If you are using sensors to measure the time and/or distance between business operations, focus on the time and delivery metrics and goals that are defined for these operations. By maintaining an objective perspective, you stay focused on the business and avoid personal privacy issues, unless there is demonstrable and consistently poor performance and you have to find out why.

2: Demonstrate flexibility and sensitivity when it comes to personal issues

Businesses are run with people, and there are times when everyone requires time in order to deal with a personal or family issue. Great managers understand and even anticipate this. They watch for employees who exhibit signs of stress, and do what is in their power to lessen the load.

3: Demand accountability when it is warranted

There are employees who don't give their best effort and abuse company time. Sensor tracking can help to identify time abuse. When your sensors highlight a situation that requires you to look into it further and you do find time abuse, hit the nail squarely on the head with the employee who is accountable. This clears the air, alerts the employee to future repercussions of continued abuse, and keeps the business on track.

Final tip: Before monitoring employees' time, I recommend seeking legal advice to be on the safe side.

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