Monday, June 16, 2014

What if Big Brother isn't all that smart?

Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving. William Shakespeare, Othello

Here's a positively frightening statement to consider:

“But so long as everyone knew they were being monitored and understood what for, I don't see why it should be such a terrifying idea - except perhaps for those who bully, shout at or harass others and who have until now been getting away with it.”

I read the article this came from a couple of times hoping to find out it was a satire, but it looks sincere. What we have here is a real financial writer named Lucy Kellaway in the UK saying that constant managerial spying would be a good thing. Apparently she feels this way in part because every time her boss may one of his rare trips to her desk, she was “writing a shopping list or was on the phone to my mum.” Well, there's the possibility that she was unlucky or perhaps she just spent too much time doing shopping lists and making personal calls. Or maybe the boss had a surveillance camera in her cubicle, hmmmm?

The conclusion Ms. Kellaway draws, though, is that had she been monitored full-time, the boss would have detected her “otherwise diligent behaviour” so that would have been just fine. Of course, it would also have detected her trips to the rest room, how many trips she made to the break room (or whatever the British equivalent is) to get her cuppa, how many people she chatted with going to and from her desk, and so on. Come review time, she'd have gotten an itemized list of the time she wasted all day in the rest room and break room, and by making out shopping lists and talking to mum on the phone.

Just to add to the irony, she thinks that such monitoring would stop bullying, shouting, and harassing others. Since these are traits exhibited in the average staff meeting, monitoring is hardly necessary. Besides, those are qualities that get people promoted to upper management.

To give herself some wiggle room, she does admit that for the system to work “you would need some faith in the regime that implemented it.” Seems to beg the question, doesn't it? How on earth could you trust an organization that would stoop to constant monitoring of personnel? Well, in that case, she says, “...you are done for, anyway.”

I'm not sure what “done for” means, but it doesn't sound good.

Strangely, Ms. Kellaway is listed as an author and Financial Times columnist, so she obviously doesn't have to worry about being in this enlightened environment any time soon.

Maybe this sort of thing would be considered acceptable in the UK (I doubt it), but since I've only worked in the USA, but my attitude toward this sort of thing in any form is that any manager or executive who would try it would find him- or herself rather short of good employees. It's not that they wouldn't want to do it, it's just that it doesn't work out in the long run. Companies have been pilloried for monitoring rest room time, recording phone conversations, and various other dirty tricks.

I'm sensitive to this whole thing because of a couple of issues that occurred during my work career. One probably cost me my job. I got a call one day from headquarters where the boss' son had been given control of the company. My boss had made a career out of mocking the young man, mostly because he deserved it, and now that same person was his boss. I got a call from the new supremo one day, advising me that he would be appreciative that if I had any concerns with my immediate boss, I should feel free to call him and report any “problems” I was having. I told him, sure, but obviously I'd tell my boss I was calling his boss because of any disagreement we might have.

That wasn't the right answer. About three months later, I was moved to a new position, and three months after that the new position was determined to no longer be necessary.  Which put me on the street.

At an earlier job, we had gone through a major management upheaval which had led to a lot of reorganizations and general unhappiness in the employee ranks. One day, we were invited in small groups to meetings with the HR people. When we got there, we got a multipage survey which, we were told, was to see what issues might be on the minds of the plebes. The survey was completely confidential, the HR person said, so we should feel free to be candid. Someone spoke up and mentioned that there was a serial number on each survey set. If this was a confidential survey, why would they have an identifier on the forms? The HR guy about herniated himself trying to explain how numbered forms couldn't possibly be traced back to the person who filled them out.

We didn't buy it. Needless to say, the overall survey results were far from “candid.” And the exodus of employees, which had already started, began to really pick up pace.

Now, call me naive, call me irresponsible, call me for dinner, but it seems to me that the very companies that would stoop to full time monitoring are exactly the ones you don't want to work for. Consider this: the organization where I worked the last 10 years, the IT department of the City of Birmingham, didn't require weekly status reports, didn't have weekly (or, ugh, daily) department meetings, didn't require detailed weekly time sheets. (1) Oh, and didn't have monitoring devices attached to every employee. And yet, our supervisors always seemed to know what we were doing, most likely because they talked to us regularly, knew what our jobs entailed, and trusted us to talk to them when we had a problem.

Gee, maybe they were monitoring us. Or just paying attention.

(1) We did have a time sheet, but it showed only hours worked or taken off per day.

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