Microchipping staff: Sensible safeguarding or ethical nightmare?

Microchips could provide firms with valuable workforce data and improve accessibility. However, some are concerned it’s a step too far

It sounded like an Orwellian nightmare. The Telegraph was the first to announce recently that Swedish firm Biohax was in talks with several UK firms about implanting staff with microchips that would allow them to enterand exit the workplace with a swipe of their hand – all in the name of heightened security and preventing employees accessing sensitive areas.

Unsurprisingly the news caused quite a stir. Trade unions sounded alarm bells about the ethical risks of monitoring employee whereabouts and productivity.

So are concerns of a Big Brother scenario justified, or is this simply the next logical step in safeguarding employees and enhancing their work experience? And what does HR need to consider if its organisation plans to microchip staff?

Jowan Österlund, founder of Biohax, tells HR magazine that he has been in talks with global conglomerates and multinational corporations for several years now. The microchips are about the size of a grain of rice and are implanted by needle into an individual’s hand by medical professionals, he explains. “It’s something that is coming and happening. It’s growing and it’s not going away,” he says.

Steven Northam, company director at BioTeq, a UK-based firm that has so far fitted 150 implants in the UK (mainly at start-ups), explains that the chips are “similar to cat and dog microchips that have been around for a long time” and are the same technology that’s used in key cards, passports and bank cards. For him microchipping improves the employee experience by making checking in and out of work easier.

“For able-bodied people it increases convenience but for disabled people it means they can access their homes or offices more easily,” he says. “There’s no reason why your hand couldn’t be your wallet, keys and passport all in one.”

Northam believes that another draw is keeping employees safe by prohibiting unauthorised individuals from entering the workplace: “It’s hard to lose your hand but not hard to lose your keys or ID, so this is the ultimate security.”

But this benefit is far outweighed by ethical concerns, according to the TUC’s employment rights policy officer Matt Creagh. “Microchipping is the most extreme form of employee surveillance I’ve heard of. The real problem is it could be used to store lots more data other than key codes and employees won’t know how the employer intends to use the data,” he says.

“One day you could go to work and use it to open the door and two months later you could get an email from your boss showing you a ream of data that they’ve collected on you without you knowing.

“If you’ve got covert surveillance it could be used to track personal emails and monitor time away from desk – we’ve seen examples where technology is already used to track when people go to the toilet, their speed of typing, their social media... And we’ve seen facial recognition software that checks if employees look happy to be at work.”

Creagh shares a particularly sinister example of surveillance technology being misused: “A colleague and line manager had been in a relationship, and in the evening the manager was using tracking software to find out where the employee was.”

There are also risks associated with undergoing an invasive medical procedure to fit the device. “What if it goes wrong? Someone has to rip it out,” says Creagh. “You chip company property, you don’t chip employees as they aren’t company property.”

But, according to Österlund, people’s worst fears on this aren’t grounded in reality: “In every movie where an implant is involved it is either polonium [a rare and radioactive metal], a GPS tracker, or it’s an explosive device.” Whereas this is a passive chip, he explains, so it can monitor workers no more than a key card. “Just because the token for identification changes and it’s embeddable doesn’t mean you’re more prone to getting tracked. If an employer wants to track people it already can,” he says.

Österlund says the “most important thing is to make sure we get proactive regulation in place” so chip production and implant procedure are properly monitored.

In the meantime, any employer looking to roll out microchipping will have several existing legal implications to contend with, says Caroline Denbow, employment solicitor and director of legal compliance at Loch Employment Law. “The key right is the right to respect for one’s private life in the European Convention on Human Rights, and private life includes personal breaks during the working day. So if the functionality of the chip enables monitoring that could be a breach of that,” she says.

The GDPR also needs to be considered: “You’d have to conduct a data protection impact assessment to assess the proportionality, compliance and necessity of the tech and identify the risk to individuals.”

Microchipping would also have to be consensual; meaning there would need to be a consultation process for employees and transparency around the use of any data.

“This is an invasion of the physical body and there’s all sorts of technology available instead, so I don’t think you could force consent through consultation – there would be claims for unfair dismissal,” says Denbow.

Guidance would also be needed to determine who owns the chip and data when the employee leaves the firm, she adds. This is where HR has a major role in ensuring there are clear policies and that there is transparent communication, says Kirstin Furber, chief people officer at ClearScore: “The company would have to be really clear about why it’s using it. I think it’s about openness and transparency and having a trusting company culture.”

But while HR should tread carefully, Furber believes the data could be used to aid engagement. “It’s not about managing individuals. I think it’s more around you’ve got lots of information that you can make decisions with… For example: ‘we have lots of people coming in at this time so do we need to change the café times to this instead of this?’ – those are the things you can do to make it a positive environment. It’s not about checking if people are doing their jobs, as doing your job isn’t about being in the office anyway.”

So how far could the technology eventually go? “The chips can be updated to interact with more in the outside world and as new technology comes out then new chips may be developed with different capabilities,” says Northam, conceding though that for now the technology is still fairly rudimentary.