Alumni refresher lecture series
Alumni refresher lecture series
We are greatly in need of informed debate in Australia about the purpose and consequences of workplace monitoring
“My anxiety is that we are sleepwalking into a surveillance society where much more information is collected about people, accessible to far more people shared across many more boundaries than British society would feel comfortable with.”
UK Information Commissioner
(interviewed in The Times, 16 August 2004)
Sentiments like those expressed above by Richard Thomas have become a regular feature of news reports. In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell famously predicted that surveillance would play a crucial role in maintaining an oppressive social order under a totalitarian regime. The name he coined for such a pervasive, centralised and oppressive surveillance system was, of course, ‘Big Brother’. Through its attachment to the eponymous television show, the term has become associated with trivial voyeurism and we now face the prospect of a constant diet of Facebook, YouTube and reality television. It is creating a generation that does not know the importance of privacy; a generation where the default state is one of total self-disclosure, even to complete strangers. This has led the outgoing Chief Justice, Murray Gleeson, to comment that some personal information previously considered to be self-evidently private may no longer be so. Yet one important lesson we can learn from Orwell’s dystopian vision is that those who hold personal information on us are also able to exercise power over us.
Although a well-developed sense of privacy is one way to counter this power, there are some things that we have always been compelled to reveal about ourselves. This is particularly the case in the employment relationship where employers consider it legitimate to gather all kinds of personal information about their employees through workplace surveillance. One question arises from this state of affairs: is workplace surveillance and the power that accompanies it exercised in a benign and paternalistic way or in a malign and coercive way? In Orwell’s Oceania, surveillance is enrolled in an oppressive and brutal project of control, but it is possible to imagine circumstances where surveillance protects us and helps to maintain our basic freedoms.
In this article I will present the workplace as a familiar setting where these opposing views both hold sway – that is, there are well-established intellectual traditions that see surveillance as either a tool of management oppression or as a way of enforcing basic notions of fairness in the workplace. What we must be able to establish is how these intellectual traditions affect our stance toward the purpose and necessity of workplace surveillance. This is important, as I shall argue that neither provides a completely satisfactory account of workplace surveillance if taken in isolation.
Consequently, in order to appreciate the personal and organisational impacts of workplace surveillance, we need to develop a conceptual and empirical approach that takes into account these opposing views. This is because the status of surveillance is invariably paradoxical and our experiences of it are often contradictory. For example, a common reaction to the failure of surveillance to prevent crime or misconduct is to argue for more of it – rather than, say, pursue another course of action that could potentially be more successful.
Another paradox of surveillance is that it is potentially a two-way street in that it can be used to expose the activities of people who abuse positions of authority. This most famously occurred in 1991, when amateur film footage was used to identify members of the Los Angeles Police Department who beat Rodney King. Finally, but not exhaustively, I offer another common paradox of surveillance in that, despite the familiar adage that ‘If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to fear’, we can appreciate the protective benefits of surveillance when it is directed at others yet cavil when it is directed at us. If we are all the targets of surveillance then one of its effects, psychologically speaking, at least, is that we are all seen as potential criminals. The UK provides a vivid example of this. Anyone who is detained by the British police can be compelled to give a DNA sample which is retained indefinitely regardless of whether that person is charged or not, let alone convicted. One of my tasks in this article is to show how these paradoxes of surveillance play out in the workplace, so that we can begin to appreciate the need for a reformulation of our ideas about surveillance to take into account its ambiguous role as a means of coercion or protection.
As countless scholars – most notably Max Weber – have observed, one of the defining features of modern organisations is the use of hierarchical systems of command and control. Weber saw this as a sine qua non for the achievement of organisational ‘incorporation’ – that is, getting a group of people from diverse backgrounds to work toward a common purpose. In a modern capitalist organisation there is no guarantee that common purpose will emerge spontaneously or by consent. Organisational goals are usually devised by an elite group of decision-makers who must then ensure that employees’ efforts are directed toward them. In a bureaucratic organisation this is achieved by breaking a job into a series of specified duties. Determining whether an individual is performing these duties becomes the responsibility of an immediate superior, thus giving rise to the familiar notion of the bureaucratic hierarchy. This is, quite literally, a form of ‘over-sight’ or ‘sur-veillance’; and it captures the operating principles of this form of organisational control. Of course, it has become fashionable to talk of ‘post-bureaucratic’ or ‘flat’ organisations where such forms of hierarchical control are supposed to have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Even if such pronouncements are true – and I for one doubt that they are – I have argued extensively in my published work that our theoretical as well as our everyday understanding of organisational control is still dependent on this conceptual notion of oversight or surveillance.
In drawing attention to the importance of bureaucratic hierarchy as a form of oversight, Weber was formally capturing the familiar Christian belief that the omnipresent eye of God will see your every sinful transgression and punish you accordingly – a principle famously depicted in Hieronymus Bosch’s painting, The Seven Deadly Sins. In organisational literature, however, our understanding of the disciplinary effect of surveillance has more recently drawn on Michel Foucault’s discussion of the Panopticon – a prison design proposed by Jeremy Bentham where warders watch prisoners held in a ring of cells arrayed around a central tower. Importantly, overseers in the tower could not be seen by the inmates, leaving them with the impression that they could at any moment be under surveillance. This is the source of panoptic discipline: the effect of surveillance would appear to be continuous even if inmates were not necessarily under constant scrutiny.
It is tempting to take the Panopticon quite literally as a model of perfected surveillance. Indeed, authors talk about the prospect of an electronic or information Panopticon to such an extent that it runs the risk of becoming a cliché. I think that one way of avoiding this fate is to see the Panopticon as a figurative expression of the desire to know all there is to know about others in the belief that this will render them self-disciplining subjects. Thus, Bentham’s Panopticon provides us with a secular version of the prospect of divine retribution leading the God-fearing to refrain from sinful behaviour – that is, to fall into line behind some culturally determined notion of what constitutes appropriate behaviour or right conduct. Importantly, the enduring nature of this belief is not dependent on the actual means of surveillance approximating to the operating principles of the Panopticon. Thus, although some argue that technological developments mean that the panoptic model no longer holds in some social settings, the workplace is nevertheless still one such setting where managers claim the legal and moral right to subject their subordinates to a form of scrutiny that involves the centralised storage and dissemination of personal information. This is particularly the case when it comes to the measurement and evaluation of personal work performance, meaning that we can still talk about the cultural and normative force of the Panopticon – it stands as a powerful metaphor for managers’ desires to collect information that can be used to compare the performance of individual employees. Indeed, it is a widely held belief that collecting such information is an essential part of running an efficient and effective organisation.
But why should individual performance measurement – part of a process of enhanced managerial control as I have presented here – be so important at a time when employee ‘empowerment’ is now the mantra of management consultants? In the sociology of organisations our general understanding of the purpose and necessity of this form of workplace surveillance falls into two ideologically opposed camps. There are those who see it as being essentially coercive – a case of the few watching the many to serve the interest of the few. In others words, managers are agents of a minority class of capitalists who use performance measurement to ensure that employees are working as hard as they can all the time. In contrast, there are those who see workplace surveillance as being essentially ‘caring’ – a case of the few watching the many to protect the interests of everyone.
In others words, managers are disinterested technocrats who use performance measurement to ensure that employees and employers each do as promised in an employment contract, in the process protecting everyone from the effects of self-interested or anti-social behaviour – for example, free-riding, bullying or various forms of harassment. In essence, this is the source of the argument: that surveillance can protect our rights at work because it ensures that employees do not suffer injustices, be they perpetrated by their colleagues or by their employers.
As I indicated above, bureaucratic control is associated with very detailed descriptions of roles and responsibilities; but in today’s world, where job descriptions are open-ended and employees expect flexibility, there is – some might say paradoxically – an even greater desire to subject the performance of employees to scrutiny. A coercive view would frame this as using surveillance to maximise the opportunities created by employee discretion and flexibility to intensify work.
This is because performance monitoring is a way of ensuring that employees are using their discretion for the good of the organisation rather than themselves. Interestingly, exactly the same argument can be advanced from a caring perspective except that, in this case, a belief in the essential fairness of the employment contract means that flexibility benefits all. Thus, only the small minority who wish to use their increased discretion to indulge in free-riding or anti-social behaviour should have anything to fear from this form of surveillance.
The problem for researchers and employees alike is that it is possible to simultaneously see the merit of each of these perspectives on workplace surveillance. Like a citizen who does not appreciate the power of the state until they are arrested and detained on the strength of a false accusation, we may well be inclined to see surveillance as being essentially benign and protective for most of the time. To repeat the old adage: it is, after all, only those who have something to hide that have something to fear. Yet, when our performance does not measure up and our work efforts are called into question, especially if we really have been working to the best of our abilities, then we may well be inclined to think of performance measurement as being little more than an instrument of managerial oppression. It is at moments like this that neither the coercive nor the caring perspective on its own can provide an adequate account of the consequences of workplace surveillance.
This gives us pause to think about how the other paradoxes of surveillance are played out at work. For example, it is easy to use the failure to apprehend a single high-profile offender – perhaps someone who abuses their position at work to obtain personal gain – as a reason to intensify surveillance of everyone’s activities without ever stopping to think about the consequences. This might include increasing compliance costs, say, by having employees do more and more paperwork, eroding trust, or actually reducing employee discretion. You cannot begin to measure a job unless you break it down to its standard component parts which, in itself, goes against the spirit of discretion. Rather than putting it down to a failure of surveillance, it may well be better to think about how such a person was appointed in the first place. In other words, it is the selection process that needs to be tightened up, not the work monitoring systems.
Finally, we may cavil as more and more of our work activities become subject to measurement, but there are times when it can work to our advantage insofar as we may be able to demonstrate that we have actually reached the required standards to be promoted or to win a bonus. Similarly, we can use things like mobile phone or internet usage records to demonstrate that we were actually doing what we were said we were doing, should our conduct ever be called into question. These are moments when the products of surveillance can be used to the advantage of employees; moments when we can use performance information to get managers to keep their side of the bargain.
As ever, the question is where do we draw the line which determines what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in terms of surveillance? In civil society, such matters are dealt with through legal and democratic processes, with varying levels of success. However, in the workplace few equivalent avenues exist. For example, in Australia, personal employee information – in practice taken to include individual performance information – is excluded from Federal privacy legislation. This was because it was intended to be an industrial relations matter but, even under the current government’s Forward with Fairness proposals, workplace privacy is not explicitly addressed. As a result, the status and role of workplace surveillance is a matter of good faith bargaining between employers and employees, with little or no reference to minimum statutory protections or maximum permitted intrusions. This means that we are greatly in need of informed debate in Australia about the purpose and consequences of workplace monitoring; a debate that can only be improved by developing a subtle appreciation of the paradoxes of surveillance and the tensions these create when we are trying to understand whether it is coercive or protects our rights at work.