The Workplace on the Verge of the 21st Century

Richard S. Rosenberg


Almost exactly ten years ago, the now extinct U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) released a major report – The Electronic Supervisor: New Technology, New Tensions. * This report describes a number of new technologies available to management in its ongoing search to ensure that labour performs its required job to management’s rigid specifications. Social issues raised with respect to electronic monitoring included privacy, fairness, quality of working life, and stress-related illnesses. The study was also concerned with drug testing, genetic screening, polygraph testing, as well as a variety of technologies for eavesdropping and monitoring. It seems to be appropriate to evaluate the analyses and recommendations made in the report and to extend the evaluation to current technologies.

Although keystroke monitoring was considered, the sophistication of current computer monitoring now encompasses e-mail, web surfing and newsgroup participation in a much more sophisticated manner. The development of active badges now permits management to precisely locate employees within a few feet, anywhere in the work environment. Every workplace technology seems to have the potential to be used to measure, monitor, and control, functions that many companies have eagerly adopted. It should be pointed out that the use of monitoring technologies to encourage employees to meet stated management objectives such as courtesy, promptness, and helpfulness in public interactions, is a recognized prerogative of management and a part of many union contracts.

This paper will be organized in the following way. Several areas of workplace monitoring will be introduced and described; among these are computer monitoring ranging from keystrokes to e-mail to web sites, drug testing, genetic testing, and mobile, personal, and building recording and scanning systems. Specific examples in Canada and the U.S. will be presented in this context, including the following:

  • Smyth v. Pillsbury, an important 1996 case involving e-mail monitoring.
  • Other e-mail monitoring cases
  • The discovery of pornography on workplace computers in Canada and elsewhere.
  • Current state of genetic technology in predicting both the probability and certainty of acquiring a variety of illnesses.
  • Other examples of potentially controlling technologies.

Given that such technologies have been around for several years, it is a worthwhile exercise to explore the existence, or absence for that matter, of policies and guidelines with respect to the use of surveillance technologies. How open are major companies with respect to their use of such policies and what role if any do their employees have with their development? Such organizations as Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and the International Labour Organization have recently released workplace guidelines. These guidelines will be introduced and discussed as well as some existing representative management examples.

Based on the technologies, examples, issues, and policies presented, we will situate the current analysis in the historical continuum of management’s desire to control most, if not every aspect of the work process. Especially relevant are the approaches now referred to as Fordism or Taylorism. In this context, not much is very surprising about current workplace technologies with their morning to evening and local to distant pervasive intrusions into the daily working lives of many employees. Thus, computer technologies, that have long been hailed as significant contributors to increased productivity, have been widely employed as tools of surveillance, with the predictable side effect that workplace stress levels have increased and worker autonomy and commitment yet further eroded.

In the shadow of the OTA report and in the light of current technologies, policies and recommendations will be proposed that both recognize management’s authority and respect workers’ rights. It is often argued that because management owes its primary allegiance to its company’s shareholders, its concern with the creation of humane working conditions is not a primary goal. Although many companies have expressed a commitment to ethical behaviour both in business dealings and in employee working conditions and other relations (a claim vociferously promoted by UPS during its recent strike), most observers of the labour scene are not convinced. For those companies that genuinely believe that a workforce treated with respect and trust will be more productive, these recommendations may be helpful in achieving their aims.

Of the several findings of the OTA report, the following, #2, may be the most relevant for the purposes of this paper:

Computer-based systems offer opportunities for organizing work in new ways, as well as means of monitoring it more intensively. Electronic monitoring is most likely to raise opposition among workers when it is imposed without worker participation, when standards are perceived as unfair, or when performance records are used punitively. Worker involvement in design and implementation of monitoring programs can result in greater acceptance by workers, but despite activities of labor unions in some industries and recent progress in labor-management cooperation in others, most firms do not have mechanisms to do this.

Has much changed in the intervening years? Again, no definitive answers are available but this paper will attempt to explore the current situation and to compare it with the world described about ten years ago.