Asking employees to 'spy' on each other

Employers can ask employees to report colleagues for infractions but they should consider the negative implications

Thousands of employees working for the Australian Taxation Office have been asked to anonymously report suspicious behaviour to management.

A memo delivered to 20,000 members of staff is encouraging them to report misconduct by their colleagues relating to issues such as leaving early, taking long lunches or being unproductive at work.

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The aim behind the memo is to tackle negative behaviour and allow action to be taken on serious issues such as fraudulently claiming payment for inaccurate working hours.

Employees can be seen as employers’ eyes on the ground and it is likely they subconsciously monitor their colleagues anyway. For example, it is often someone within the same team who watches the clock when their colleague is taking a lunch ‘hour’ or a non-smoker who notices their smoking colleague sneaking outside for a cigarette break.

They will often feel disgruntled by this because they are under the impression they do not get the same benefits as the person who breaks the rules.

The advantages of asking employees to report colleagues' bad behaviour to managers is that it is a quick and effective way of bringing matters to the employer’s attention. There is no need for management to spend time monitoring employees as they can do it instead. This means management can use their time more productively to carry out their own workload or take care of other management responsibilities.

There are, however, quite significant disadvantages to this method of managing employees. Having team members reporting on your behaviour can lead to deep feelings of mistrust and suspicion at work. This will have a detrimental impact on matters such as team work, co-operation and productivity.

It may also create an atmosphere where employees tell on each other as a 'tit for tat' approach, with concerns eventually deteriorating to become about petty infractions of the rules. Managers may end up spending more time trying to work out which reports are serious enough to warrant formal action and trying to repair the damage done to working relationships.

There will also be serious knock-on effects in relation to retention as employees are likely to want to move on to a workplace where they feel trusted or more comfortable working with their team.

Employees should be encouraged to raise concerns where their colleagues are carrying out unlawful, unsafe or concerning acts. This may include issues such as bullying, harassment, breaches of health and safety, fraud or theft. Doing so is likely to be classed as whistleblowing, or making a protected disclosure. Staff who do blow the whistle are protected against being treated negatively for raising their concerns.

Employers can ask their employees to report their colleagues for all infractions of the company’s rules but they should consider the negative implications of doing so first. Where there are alternatives available these should be used instead. For example, if there are concerns workers are taking too long on their lunch, introducing a timekeeping system could help tackle this.

The lack of productivity among employees who spend their working time doing non-work activities can be addressed by regular meetings with managers and setting daily work targets that can be measured. So long as staff are notified in advance, proportionate monitoring of their online activity or email traffic can also be used to ensure they are carrying out work.

Where employees have concerns about their colleagues’ behaviour or feel disgruntled about certain aspects such as taking too long on lunch breaks, they can first be encouraged to raise these with their manager informally. If they don’t choose to do this, or the situation continues, they will be able to rely on the company’s internal grievance procedure to raise this formally.

Alan Price is HR director at Peninsula