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Little Brother is watching

There has always been an aspect of worker surveillance in the workplace, even leaving aside industries with open conflict between labor and management, like dock workers, teamsters, and agricultural laborers. The rise of Taylorism in the early 20th century, when the stopwatch became a symbol of efficiency at all costs has slowly ebbed, and much of the work of today professional knowledge workers goes unclocked. But just because we don’t actually punch in when we enter and exit the office — and where we might be working remotely and hardly coming to the office at all — doesn’t mean we aren’t being watched. In fact, the technologies that we have today are much more capable of discovering resentful workers than industrial era foremen ever could.

IBM recently announced a new security tool that crunches big data in novel ways to find clues of ‘disgruntled employees’  that might pose a threat:

Joel Schectman, IBM Security Tool Can Flag ‘Disgruntled Employees’

The new tool, called IBM Security Intelligence with Big Data, is designed to crunch decades worth of emails, financial transactions and website traffic, to detect patterns of security threats and fraud. Beyond its more conventional threat prevention applications, the new platform, based on Hadoop, a framework that processes data-intensive queries across clusters of computers, will allow CIOs to conduct sentiment analysis on employee emails to determine which employees are likely to leak company data, Mr. Bird said. That capability will look at the difference between how an employee talks about work with a colleague and how that employee discusses work on public social media platforms, flagging workers who may be nursing grudges and are more likely to divulge company information. “By analyzing email you can say this guy is a disgruntled employee and the chance that he would be leaking data would be greater,” Mr. Bird said of IBM’s new tool.

For example, a company could analyze employee emails that express a positive sentiment to a manager at work, but detect “when he’s talking to a peer or someone outside the company, the sentiment comes out a little different,” Mr. Bird said.  Such a pattern, combined with other factors, could cause an employee to be flagged for more investigation by an IT team. Sentiment analysis works by parsing patterns in words and phrases that signify whether the intent behind a message is likely positive, negative or neutral.

I once worked at a firm where — a few years before I worked there — a disgruntled and mentally unstable employee had watch through an insurance company’s data center with a large homemade electromagnet, and he degaussed a bunch of irretrievable data. I’m sure the company would have liked to have headed off that episode with a tool like IBM’s.

Sentiment analysis is a common capability of today’s social media analytic tools, used to track what is being said about a company’s services and products. And of course, these tool can — and will be — used as in the IBM tool example, to track what employees are saying in their off hours.

Many companies go to great lengths to tell workers what they can and cannot say in their corporate and extracurricular social media activities. But it is very easy for companies to go to far. For example, it is a commonplace for companies to state that employees must not say anything disparaging about the business online, or to discuss internal business issues in public forums like Facebook or Twitter. However, this is illegal, and in many cases will lead to a bad outcome for the company, perhaps just a public outcry, like the recent Applebee case — a waitress was fired after posting a picture of a customer’s receipt, a minister who complained about the 18% tip added to the check for large parties (below).

Applebee Receipt
Applebee Receipt

But companies can get into real difficulties if they fire workers who are engaged in what the National Labor Relations Board considers ‘concerted speech’: that is, discussions between workers about pay, working conditions, safety concerns, changes in workplace policies, and other related topics. And stating that workers have to sign an agreement that curtails such rights or face termination is also illegal.

At the core, it comes down to the rights of workers to self-organize to improve their working conditions, and to meet publicly to do so. In this regard, public forums like Facebook are as protected as a public square, the union hall, or the cafeteria. Companies cannot decide unilaterally that the operations of the business are confidential, and cannot be spoken of.

However, this does not mean that workers can share trade secrets, disclose confidential information, or grips that their supervisor change their work schedule. But it does mean that workers can complain if the company makes workplace changes that raise safety concerns.

A good example of a company overstepping is that of Royal Ahold in 2012:

Workers Win Battle Over Employer Crackdowns on Social Media – Bruce Vail via AlterNet

Leaders of the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union and the Teamsters have successfully backed down a large multinational conglomerate that attempted to impose such restrictions on more than 100,000 workers across the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions, union officials said.  Complaints to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have resulted in the New York-based unit of the company withdrawing the disputed policy, and a settlement of similar complaints is imminent in the Baltimore area, they said.

The fight erupted late last year when supermarket chains owned by the Dutch retailing conglomerate Royal Ahold began demanding that employees sign a “Social Policy Guidelines” document that warned of dire consequences if workers used social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter to communicate too freely about their jobs. The grocery chains—Stop & Shop in New England/New York, Giant Food in the Mid-Atlantic, Martin’s Food Markets in Virginia, and a separate home delivery service called Peapod—threatened disciplinary action, including possible dismissal, if employees refused to sign the document or violated any of the guidelines.

 […]
In any event, a settlement of the charges in NLRB’s Baltimore region appears to be imminent, according to NLRB spokeswoman Shelly Skinner. Documents have been circulated among all the parties to the complaints, Skinner said, and the NLRB is taking the position that the language of the Giant policy is overly broad. The labor agency also sees merit in the charge that the policy could chill the exercise of the employees’ protected rights, she said. Armstrong added that his understanding of the settlement is that Giant will no longer threaten dismissal for employees who refuse to sign the policy document.

For UFCW, this victory is part of a larger struggle taking place in the realm of social media, according to Amber Sparks, director of new media at the union’s international headquarters in Washington, D.C. The union is using social media, especially Facebook, as a way to connect workers with each other and their union, she said. These efforts are provoking reactions from employers like Giant who see Facebook campaigns for fair labor contracts, or new organizing initiatives, as a threat, she said.

As a result, companies should be very careful in the writing and administration of social media policies, and instead of simply doing what social media gurus recommend, they should consult with a good lawyer well-versed in labor law.

My recommendation is to listen to employees public discourse for sentiment analysis on an aggregated basis, to take the temperature of the company. But I do not recommend tracking employees, looking for gripers. Obviously, in many regulated industries communications between staff and customers must be monitored. But attempting to track the political opinions of employees for the sake of firing those that don’t match your company’s political positions is odious, even if it might turn out to be legal., depending on the state you are in. It might be attractive to use a power just because you have it, but that doesn’t mean you should.

My hope is that Little Brother won’t be watching, even if he can.