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The Creepy, Intrusive Ways You're Being Spied on at Work

How employers invade workers' privacy.

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Currently about 75 percent of employees at American companies are subjected to regular surveillance at the workplace, while employees who use the Internet at work stand a 33 percent chance of being exposed to constant surveillance. Even employees who engage in hard, unrewarding manual labor, such as hotel housekeeping, are subject to electronic scrutiny and performance monitoring. During a recent hotel stay, one of us was puzzled that the housekeeping person assigned to his room was visibly upset when he told her she didn’t need to clean the room. She knocked on the door once more and asked if she could use the phone. As she picked up the receiver, she explained that she had to enter her code into the room’s phone so management would give her credit for making up that room. The telephone surveillance system was gathering metrics about the number of rooms cleaned, how fast they were cleaned, and which worker was doing the cleaning. If guests complained, blame would be easy to assign. Likewise, it’s not difficult to imagine that these data were being used to discipline—or “motivate”—workers who cleaned too slowly. Some hotels even track their housekeeping staff’s productivity with a cell phone app that measures movement and speed at all times. If workers stand still or sit down for even a few seconds, management knows.

“This Call May Be Monitored”

Of all service-sector jobs, call centers push workplace surveillance to the extreme. These jobs often crush workers together in a honeycomb of cubicles with almost no privacy: bosses and coworkers can hear you amid the din of voices, can see you over the low walls, and can track your minute-by-minute productivity score on LCD monitors. The electronic surveillance extends much further, too. At most call centers,
such as the ones operated by Time Warner Cable, expectations are broken down second by second: “2 minutes, 30 seconds—average length of call; 16 seconds—the maximum time a customer can be let on hold; 8 seconds—the time to complete paperwork between calls. Simply finding time to go to the bathroom can be tough.” Your phone must be active at almost all times, typically with only five to twenty seconds allowed between calls. In telemarketing call centers, automated systems called “predictive dialing” increase pressure further by automatically dialing the next call as soon as the last one is terminated, pushing workers to achieve on-phone rates of up to fifty-four minutes each hour. Of course, managers can listen to your conversations in real time to see if you have a friendly tone of voice and are technically competent, but evaluation of your performance can happen retrospectively too, because all calls are recorded and archived; all e-mails and computer keystrokes are saved; just about everything you do, in fact, is instantly converted into “data.”

All this is done in the name of efficiency, just as Taylor proposed, but the experience is grueling for workers. Indeed, “e-slave” has entered the urban slang lexicon to describe call-center employees who put up with tremendous stress, work long hours, and have unpredictable schedules. Some workers refer to the call-center performance systems as a “technological whip” that automates the slave driver’s task, contributing to a general climate that includes “bullying, impossible sales targets, not receiving wages on time, and hostility to unions.” Given this harsh environment, some call centers have an annual turnover rate of over 100 percent.

And managers are constantly on the lookout for ways to increase output, even if it pushes workers to the breaking point. At a tech support call center operated by the Charles Schwab brokerage firm, one worker related: “A year ago we had three minutes at after each call to write up what happened. That was called ‘wrap.’ Now there’s no wrap time; we have to write notes as we handle calls.” To cope with this labor intensification, employees must shift that time on to customers; one worker at a different call center explains: