'Time theft' | Ethical issues arise as tracking software gets employee sacked

Ethical issues arise as tracking software gets employee sacked

A worker has been ordered to pay back the equivalent of £1500 in wages to her ex-employer, after tracking software deemed she had “misrepresented” hours of work.

According to a tribunal in Canada, Karlee Besse, who worked remotely as an accountant, was accused of “time theft” by her ex-employer Reach CPA, who claimed had logged more than 50 hours that “did not appear to have spent on work-related tasks”.

The firm’s claim was based on evidence from an employee-tracking software called TimeCamp, which had been installed on Besse’s work laptop. The software tracks how long a document is open, how it’s used by an employee, and logs times of key actions.

Reach CPA told the legal proceedings it had “identified irregularities between [Besse’s] timesheets and the software usage logs”.

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Besse told the tribunal she found the program “difficult” and believe it didn’t differentiate between work and personal use, but the company demonstrated that software does in fact automatically distinguish between the two by separating time logs for work from personal use such as such as streaming films.

Besse had initially claimed she was fired without cause and was seeking C$5,000 (£3,066) in compensation. However, following these revelations, the judge threw out this claim and instead ordered her to pay C$2,459.89 (£1506.66), both in returned wages and as a part of previous advance she had received from the company.

The ethics of worker surveillance

While it’s clear there were genuine reasons for the firm to sack Besse, there are significant ethical issues when it comes to monitoring an employee’s productivity so invasively. But Reach CPA aren’t alone in doing so, far from it.

In fact, one in five companies has admitted either installing technology to snoop on staff or planning to, according to research. The software can log how long workers take to read and reply to messages, check attendance at meetings — or even secretly film them from their screen.

Frances O’Grady, TUC General Secretary, told the Metro in 2022: “Worker surveillance tech has taken off during this pandemic as more people have been forced to work from home.

“We know many employers are investing in tech to micro-manage workers and automate decisions about who to hire, and who to let go. Staff must be properly consulted on the use of surveillance at work and protected from unfair management by algorithm.

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“As we emerge from this crisis, technology must be used to make working lives better — not to rob people of their dignity.”

Several firms have come under fire amid allegations of monitoring remote workers’ activities.

In 2020, accounting giants PwC came under fire for developing a facial recognition tool to help them monitor staff working from home, according to The Times. The technology was designed to alert bosses when workers stepped away from their desks, including to make a drink or use the bathroom.

Similarly, banking giant Barclays piloted a computer monitoring system to log the “effectiveness” of employees when at their desks.

Just over a week later, the firm pulled the plug on the tracking system in response to negative “colleague feedback”.

In 2022, confidential documents obtained by Motherboard showed that Amazon had outlined plans to track the keyboard and mouse patterns of remote customer service employees, in a bid to catch out rogue workers or hackers from accessing customers' data.

Elsewhere last year, news broke that a pregnant employee was sacked after bosses discovered she was spending hours each day online shopping and snooping on co-workers' personal records.

Paige Mowatt spent more than 10 hours viewing ‘non-work-related material’ in just 15 days, after starting to work from home at the start of the pandemic, according to an employment tribunal.

As well as researching baby products, she carried out a “sustained and calculated” search of her colleagues’ messages and sick notes.

Her behaviour was exposed after bosses at One Call Insurance in Doncaster, looked into her computer activity, after they learned a customer’s car insurance policy, which Mowatt was responsible for, had not been renewed.

An investigation was launched into the oversight, during which Mowatt was also found that to have “accessed websites relating to the sale of prams and other children’s items during working hours”.

A disciplinary investigation was launched, during which Mowatt admitted checking the emails of colleagues, including managers. She explained that she felt she was being bullied and wanted to see if there was any proof. She also admitted viewing meeting minutes and emails in order to look into this and said that she was just looking for emails about herself.

What is the law on monitoring staff?

Karen Holden, CEO of A City Law Firm, explains that although the practice is legal if regulations are followed, employers must be careful to show a legitimate need for the policy, as well as ensuring staff consent to the monitoring.

"Monitoring employees working remotely or at the office is not illegal if it complies with regulations including the Data Protection Act 2018, and the Employment Practices Data Protection Code 2011,” Holden previously told HR Grapevine.

“An employer ideally should have carried out an impact assessment so it can show there is a legitimate interest behind the mechanisms and how the data is to be stored and used. This is also helpful for the employer to understand and balance trust, and motivation against any loss of staff confidence.

“The employees should provide their consent and have knowledge of what the employer is doing if an employer is to avoid potential grievances and claims. As such a dedicated policy should be circulated to inform staff of what is being done and why to avoid surprises and confusion (unless this has already been set out in their employment contracts).”

Holden continued: “All staff should be treated equally to avoid claims of discrimination and caution should be excised not to infringe a person’s privacy by being too invasive. Given recent times an employer should be sensitive to staff well-being, health and the hours staff are working.

“This is actually common practice in large London businesses. Specifically for keystroke capture, employers will need to obtain written agreement for this type of monitoring in some cases.”

Workers concerned about ‘Big Brother’ environment

Remote workers have previously spoken out regarding 'big brother' monitoring software, with the majority sharing that they would not choose a job where their employer used software to track their work.

According to a March 2021 study by Skillcast, 59% of respondents did not want to work for any company trying to use software that could spy on them, as was reported the Standard.

Only one-third of those surveyed stated that it was acceptable if used to comply with regulations.

Despite this, many workers shared feelings of mistrust for their employers, with eight per cent saying that they think they are being monitored by such software without being told about it.

Vivek Dodd, Founder of Skillcast, said: “Our study sends a clear message – employees in all sectors strongly oppose the use of monitoring software in their homes, even if employers claim that it is required for regulatory compliance.”

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