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Did you ever get the feeling you were being watched?
I was listening to a Toronto lawyer the other day as he explained why his firm scans the fingertips of hourly employees. It’s all part of a new trend called biometrics that is transforming the workplace.
Biometrics enables electronic machines to recognize individuals or confirm identities by gathering and comparing physical and behavioral characteristics.
In other words, your fingerprints, facial features, voice, your iris and even the way you walk can be used to track your whereabouts and movements in the workplace, on the street and virtually anywhere on the planet.
This intrusion into workers’ personal space is explained in terms of payroll efficiency and security. It’s just easier and more effective to control the worker bees this way.
When Big Brother is watching, and in this case he is always watching, employees are more likely to arrive and leave on time. Not only that, those two-hour lunches and extended coffee breaks will become a thing of the past.
This role used to be played by front line supervisors who were responsible for managing employee behaviour. They used tools like positive reinforcement and progressive discipline to get the job done.
This was a very effective and productive process but these days we don’t have the patience or the skills to carry it off. It’s more expedient to get the humans out of Human Resources and let robots do our dirty work.
Now business owners can swiftly and automatically dock the pay of tardy, time-wasting workers. It will soon become evident which ones aren’t pulling their weight. Retribution will be doled out in nanoseconds.
Our workplaces are being dehumanized. Human interaction is being replaced with exotic imaging equipment. We no longer have the interpersonal skills to deal with each other face to face.
The invasion of privacy is a bigger concern. Regardless of what is being scanned, a fingertip a face or an iris, personal information is being gathered and that makes it a privacy issue.
A great deal of secondary information may be found during a routine scan. An image of your iris can reveal a lot of personal health information. Even the wear and tear on a person’s fingertip can be used to determine occupation or socio-economic status.
There are no Canadian national standards for the use of biometrics and accordingly there are no safeguards or minimum standards for privacy or public transparency in Canada. All that personal information is up for grabs.
The federal government appears to be a big fan of biometrics in the public service. But according to Canada’s Privacy Commissioner we should ask a number of questions to test for its appropriate use.
Is it really advisable to rob employees of their right to personal privacy simply because it is convenient or cost-effective? It must be clearly demonstrated that these invasive measures will meet a specific need.
Biometrics may not be the most appropriate response to the problem. For example, technology won’t resolve issues like low morale or lack of motivation. If anything, dehumanizing your workforce will make things worse.
Consider whether a few marginal benefits are worth the loss of individual privacy and dignity. Covertly collected personal information is extremely sensitive. Unless it is likely to provide extraordinary benefits, why bother?
In the end employers pay their workers to behave in a certain way and they can use electronic surveillance to enforce the rules. But they can’t buy enthusiasm or loyalty. There is no way to enforce the devotion of hearts, minds or souls.
For that you need a human touch.
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