With ‘spying bosses’ on the rise, where do federal agencies stand on employee monitoring?

One federal office has turned to employee monitoring technology in recent years, and it's led to a major rift between workers and management.

Earlier this spring, several House lawmakers introduced a new bill to address a burgeoning post-pandemic trend: the use of employee monitoring technologies.

The “Stop Spying Bosses Act” would create new rules around the use of worker surveillance technologies. It would also establish a new division at the Labor Department to regulate workplace surveillance.

The legislation comes in response to an explosion in the use of everything from video surveillance to keylogging software to keep tabs on employees. A 2023 survey of 1,000 companies with remote or hybrid workforces found the vast majority use some form of employee monitoring. There’s even a new term for tech that enables this kind of continuous activity tracking: “bossware.”

As the country’s largest employer, where does the federal government stand? To date, there’s little evidence that federal agencies and their managers are taking up the more intrusive employee monitoring practices being embraced in the private sector.

But the unions that represent feds are also guarding against the potential as the technology evolves. National Federation of Federal Employees Executive Director Steve Lenkart said the issue is intertwined with the evolution of telework.

“As our technology improves, and we have more capabilities for people not to be in a centralized place, we’re going to have to invest in technologies that make it easier for that employee to function,” Lenkart said in an interview. “And there’s always going to be questions of supervision. And then it leads to questions of surveillance.”

SSA watchdog monitors employee computers

There is at least one instance where federal employees working remotely have had their computers monitored for performance.

In 2021, employees at the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General were subject to a survey of computer logs and telephone records to measure time online. Some employees were subject to disciplinary action or terminated.

While the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA) — which represents more than 90% of SSA OIG agents – pushed back on that practice, SSA Inspector General Gale Ennis argued it was necessary “as stewards of taxpayer dollars, to hold employees accountable, when appropriate.”

“Failing to do so would be detrimental to public service, the OIG mission, and the morale of the many employees who go above and beyond in their contributions every day,” Ennis wrote in a September 2021 letter to the union.

Later that month, the FLEOA took a vote in which 98% of responding employees said they had “no confidence” in Ennis’s leadership. The use of computer logs for employee monitoring was among the issues cited by the union in its statement on the vote.

More than two years later, an FLEOA spokeswoman said the issue around the computer monitoring has yet to be resolved. “To our knowledge, the data analytics from employee monitoring are not being used for disciplinary actions as they were before, but they could be using it for other reasons,” the spokeswoman told Federal News Network.

In a statement for this story, FLEOA President Mat Silverman said SSA OIG employees were terminated “based on computer logs often without any corroborating or mitigating evidence from an employee’s immediate supervisor, raising serious doubts about the legitimacy of the terminations.”

“As agencies become increasingly skeptical about the benefits of remote work, we do fear the trend of remote monitoring will continue; however, we hope the strong criticism, high attrition, and decreased morale SSA OIG experienced will send a strong message to other agencies that this is neither an effective nor appropriate workplace policy,” Silverman said. “Ultimately, a workplace is successful when there is mutual trust, transparency, and confidence between employees and their leadership. Conversely, remote monitoring is demeaning to employees and undermines these important workplace values.”

In response to questions about the use of computer monitoring, an SSA OIG spokeswoman said, “Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General supervisors measure productivity and performance of their employees using performance plans.”

‘No rulebook’ on employee monitoring

As the telework era continues to evolve, Lenkart said it will take time to strike the balance between supervision and surveillance.

“I think there’s going to be a little bit of operational uncomfortableness,” he said. “If you don’t trust your employee enough where you have to watch them minute-by-minute, then that’s probably not a good candidate to be working home or the supervisor has trust issues that need to be addressed. There’s no rulebook written on this yet.”

While workplace collaboration technologies, like Microsoft Teams and Zoom, are key to remote work, some unions are keeping a close eye on how those technologies are used by management. The National Treasury Employees Union, for instance, said it “opposes the use of technology for anything other than its intended purpose.”

In a statement, NTEU National President Doreen Greenwald said the union negotiates language in contracts that any “new or upgraded workplace technology cannot be used to track and monitor employees, measure productivity or replace existing official methods for tracking time and attendance.”

“For example, monitoring an employee’s colored-dot status on Microsoft Teams is not an indicator of productivity or attendance, and we would enforce our contracts to contest agency managers trying to use it as the basis of discipline or an adverse action against an employee,” Greenwald continued.

On its “Telework FAQ” page, the Office of Personnel Management encourages supervisors to focus on what an employee is accomplishing, rather than what it “looks like” an individual is doing.

“By focusing on the work product instead of the work activity, many supervisors find they are better able to communicate clear expectations to their employees,” OPM writes. “The resulting agreement on job expectations often leads to increases in employee productivity and job satisfaction.”

OPM did not respond to questions about the potential use of employee monitoring technology within the federal government.

In a 2021 blog, the Government Accountability Office underlined how first-line supervisors are key to reporting whether they think an employee is abusing time and attendance requirements. While agencies are increasingly using automated timekeeping systems and other internal controls to detect misconduct, managers are “still the most important internal control for managing time and attendance,” GAO wrote.

That’s a sentiment Lenkart reiterated in highlighting the disparate nature of many federal jobs and the difficulty of measuring performance from time spent on a computer.

“In the end, it’s always going to come back to the local supervisor to determine whether you have a good employee or not,” he said.


Nearly Useless Factoid

By: Derace Lauderdale

Close to 80% of employers use monitoring software to track employee performance and online activity.

Source: CNBC

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