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Does monitoring technology reduce rule-breaking and (oh no) make compliance officers obsolete?

Employers have been using technology to keep an eye on workers for at least a decade. And when the pandemic shifted nearly everyone to work-from-anywhere, monitoring went through the roof.

Tech tools now track employees through keyboard captures, screen shots, audio and video surveillance, GPS, and more.

So the questions are: Does increased monitoring mean there’s reduced rule-breaking? And, if so, does that mean technology is inevitably rendering compliance officers obsolete?

Naw.

In November 2021, five business profs from different universities published results of their research examining whether monitoring accomplishes its intended purposes.

The profs focused on monitoring tools for tracking performance, increasing productivity, and deterring rule-breaking.

They found that monitoring “can seriously backfire.”

Here’s their conclusion:

In our first study, we surveyed more than 100 employees across the U.S., some of whom were subject to monitoring at work and some of whom were not. We found that monitored employees were substantially more likely to take unapproved breaks, disregard instructions, damage workplace property, steal office equipment, and purposefully work at a slow pace, among other rule-breaking behaviors. Of course, this survey only determined correlation — so to prove causation, we ran a second, experimental study. We asked another 200 U.S.-based employees to complete a series of tasks, and told half of them that they would be working under electronic surveillance. We then gave them an opportunity to cheat, and found that those who were told they were being monitored were actually more likely to cheat than those who didn’t think they were being monitored.

What’s behind these paradoxical results?

According to the profs, employees do the right thing because of both external and internal motivators. The external motivator is the threat of punishment or reward, and the internal motivator is their “sense of morality.” The profs’ research showed that monitoring employees can blunt their internal motivator — their sense of morality — because they feel less responsible for their own conduct.

The profs said,

Specifically, when we surveyed the participants in our studies, we found that those who were monitored were more likely to report that the authority figure overseeing their surveillance was responsible for their behavior, while the employees who weren’t monitored were more likely to take responsibility for their actions. This reduction in agency in turn made the monitored employees more likely to act contrary to their own moral standards, ultimately leading them to engage in behavior that they would otherwise consider immoral.

Despite this latest research (and similar prior findings), no one expects employers to abandon monitoring tools and leave remote or on-site workers completely alone. So, how to monitor employees without pushing them into poor performance, degraded productivity, and increased rule-breaking?

As one of the profs said in an interview with Computer World in August this year: “If you’re operating on the assumption that people are bad and they’ll lie, steal and cheat, you’re probably not going to do monitoring the right way, because the way you introduce it is most certainly going to lead to this feeling like they’ve lost their agency. You’re just going to induce counterproductive outcomes.”

What’s the fix?

Reduce the fear factor and bring workers into the process. Do that by giving employees “input into when surveillance is appropriate and when it should be off-limits — and then stick to those boundaries,” the profs said.

Also, “communicate openly and transparently with employees about what data will be collected and how it will be used — in fact, one survey found that even just explaining the scope and purpose of monitoring can boost employees’ acceptance of the practice by about 70 percent.”

Finally, give employees access to monitoring data, both their own and “anonymized data collected from relevant teams.” Releasing specific and relative feedback demystifies the monitoring.

Back to our original questions: Does increased monitoring reduce rule-breaking? It doesn’t and probably never will. The more bosses act like Big Brother, the more us worker bees will act out. See, e.g., everything written by George Orwell and Dr. Seuss.

And the second question: Does the use of monitoring technology mean compliance officers are or will be obsolete? Not at companies with smart leaders. Workers relate to bosses (and compliance officers) who treat them like they’re capable and trustworthy. Monitoring technology can never do that. By design, most monitoring tools assume the worst about people. That’s why monitoring creates the very problems it’s intended to solve.

Profs Chase Thiel, Julena M. Bonner, John Bush, David Welsh, and Niharika Garud wrote recently about their research in HBR here. Their published results are available here.

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