The sacking of an Australian insurance worker after her company used keystroke technology to monitor her activity highlights a chilling rise in employee surveillance tools, experts warn.
Suzie Cheikho, a former consultant at Insurance Australia Group (IAG), was sacked in February for missing deadlines and meetings, being absent and uncontactable, and failing to complete a task that caused the industry regulator to fine IAG.
She received a formal warning in November 2022 about her output and was put on a performance improvement plan.
Cheikho was subject to a detailed review of cyber activity, which analyzed the number of times she physically pressed her keyboard on 49 working days from October to December.
The review found she had “very low keystroke activity”, averaging 54 strokes per hour over the duration of her surveillance, which showed “she was not presenting for work and performing work as required.”
Cheikho, who told her employer she did “not believe for a minute” the data was true, took her case to the Fair Work Commission (FWC).
The tribunal this week sided with IAG, finding she was fired for a “valid reason of misconduct.”
Cheikho has been contacted for comment.
Uri Gal, professor of business information systems at the University of Sydney, said more than 50 percent of organizations globally now used some form of online monitoring of their workforce.
“Over the years it’s become much more common,” he said.
“And the phenomenon has grown during Covid just because more people were working from home and the anxiety levels amongst managers were heightened because they wanted to make sure people were still performing as they were supposed to.”
Prof Gal said there was a huge industry of companies that developed these technologies.
“There are many types out there that offer different types of capabilities,” he said.
“Some of these tools are very comprehensive. The most extreme versions basically install some sort of silent agent on the machine, like a fly on the wall, everything you do is recorded — what websites you’re going to, what you’re typing, what applications are open, at any point in time they can take a screenshot. So pretty pervasive and comprehensive.”
It was surprising and concerning, he added, that many employees seemed unaware that what they were doing on their work laptops was so closely monitored by their company.
“Many employees don’t know what’s installed on their machines and that to me raises an added layer of concerns,” he said.
“Because it’s one thing to monitor your employees — I think we all expect to be monitored in one form or another in the workplace — but to monitor without telling them is ethically questionable. We have a right to know to what degree our actions are being surveilled and it also raises questions about the integrity of our employers if they’re not willing to tell us they’re monitoring us — not being given the benefit of the doubt, being treated as a criminal.”
Prof Gal said employers may like their staff to know they were being monitored due to the powerful effect of the “digital panopticon,” referring to a hypothetical prison where all inmates can be seen at all times.
“Once we start assuming we’re being watched, the most effective form of control is if we have no idea [when] we’re being watched — we have to assume we’re being watched all the time,” he said.
“It’s an extremely powerful and relatively affordable form of control.”
But Prof Gal argued that while it might benefit organizations in the short term, it was not a “healthy long-term approach just from a practical perspective.”
“I think managers have to ask themselves what sort of organizational culture they want to build,” he said.
“One of trust and nurturing healthy relationships and giving agency to do the right thing, struggle with difficult questions and grow and as a result become better employees — or do we want to treat them like children, essentially?”
He added, “When you’re being treated like a child you start acting like a child.”
Working-from-home expert Dr. Daniel Schlagwein, associate professor at the University of Sydney Business School, said his research into fully remote companies showed that “lazy, looking over the shoulder” in-person management styles did not translate well to the new environment.
“It’s much better to develop more modern management techniques such as by particular project outcomes,” he said.
“What these [remote organizations] are doing is often pooling the work and letting workers self-select what they are working on, so in a sense they are motivated.”
Underperforming workers can still be managed through more traditional KPIs without resorting to “spying”, Dr. Schlagwein argued.
“It might technically be my employer’s computer, but given how much we use our devices and how much private and professional spaces are intermingling for most knowledge workers, I think that’s a bit too invasive,” he said.
Fiona Macdonald, social and industrial policy director with the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute think tank, said employee monitoring was “quite widespread” and “expanding rapidly” but it was difficult to know the true extent because “we don’t actually have any requirement for employers to make known what technology they’re using.”
“You do hear increasingly workplaces where somebody is employed just to monitor the data coming from workers’ computers to see what they’re doing,” she said.
Ms Macdonald said in addition to obvious privacy concerns, the increasing use of technologies including surveillance and artificial intelligence in workforce management — particularly in Europe and the US — raised broader ethical and legal issues.
“It’s increasingly used to make decisions and that’s really problematic, because here you have AI doing the tracking, assessing, hiring, and firing, and it can lead to some really unjust outcomes,” she said.
Unfortunately, she added, “workers don’t have a lot of rights” around on-the-job surveillance.
“When you are on your employer’s time, managerial prerogative rules,” she said.