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Big Brother in Small Business

(Note: I wrote this for Anita Campbell’s Small Business Trends, where it was posted first, earlier today. Tim)

Speaking as a person, spying on people is degrading and ugly. Being watched is like being accused of something.

Speaking as a business owner, spying on people feels bad, and watching people is really boring and seems very unproductive. Is it necessary?

I just read the New York Times story AT&T to Sell Equipment to Monitor Workplaces.

AT&T plans to introduce a nationwide program today that gives owners of small- and medium-size businesses some of the same tools big security companies offer for monitoring employees, customers and operations from remote locations.

Under AT&T’s Remote Monitor program, a business owner could install adjustable cameras, door sensors and other gadgets at up to five different company locations across the country. Using a Java-enabled mobile device or a personal computer connected to the Internet, the owner would be able to view any of the images in real time, control room lighting and track equipment temperatures remotely.

Is this about people working at home? Or is it about general workplace monitoring? Hours worked, things said, behavior? Neither of these generates pleasant images. The Times story isn’t very reassuring:

It is Big Brother, but in this day and age, you need these type of tools for theft protection, weeding out false accident claims and other risks, said Beaux Roby, owner of a chain of five Mamas Café restaurants and two banquet halls in Texas. … You have fraudulent claims from customers that trip and fall and things like that, he said. Aside from helping to verify insurance claims, the system can detect break-ins, alert an owner if a boiler breaks down and monitor employees who are just sitting around on the clock not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, Mr. Roby said. In one instance, he said, a worker seen operating a meat slicer without wearing protective gloves was reprimanded.

On the one hand, as a business owner with 40 employees, I understand the motivation. In our company our controller, affectionately called The Voice of Doom, has a repertoire of workplace lawsuit stories scarier than FreddyKruger on Elm Street. And our CPA warned us, when we passed the 25-employee mark, that getting to 50 is really hard.

On the other hand, in a business with 40 employees the owners work in the company along with everybody else, and the atmosphere, the community, the company culture matters a whole lot. 1984-movie-bb_a1I’ve secretly admitted for years that part of my motivation for building the company was having somewhere to go, five days a week, where I liked to be. How can we feel like a team when some of us are big brother watching and others are being watched? Is what we gain in peace of mind, theoretically, worth what we lose in attitude and atmosphere?

We don’t monitor Internet usage. We don’t save screens. Although we warn our employees that email isn’t private — we wish it were, but it isn’t, courts have made that clear — we don’t snoop on emails either. We don’t have security cameras, and we don’t snoop on phone calls, and we don’t have time clocks for punching in and out.

My tech support manager asked me once whether I wanted to use software to monitor employees’ Internet usage. He didn’t recommend it but felt he should at least ask. At the time we were having bandwidth problems related to growth pains, and Napster was an issue. We didn’t do it. We talked about the problem with employees, and paid for some broadband Internet connections at some homes, and bought more bandwidth.

Are we being naive?


  • Ilya Bodner says:

    This technology will encourage employees to retaliate with unethical behavior. Take the time to properly train any staff member for his or her position. Then fully hand off the responsibility to that person for the position and they will strive to do the job. People are basically good.

    Ilya Bodner
    Breaking Down the Barriers to Small Business Financing

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