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Is it ethical to track employee behaviour?

Some think behaviour tracking benefits both employer and employee, while others warn of unscrupulous use

The ethics of behaviour tracking divided opinion at a recent Purple Cubed Breakfast Club ‘People Analytics’ debate.

Global head of behavioural science at IPSOS Colin Strong highlighted the opportunity for HR of mining relatively simple data to gain behavioural insights.

“There have been studies looking at ways you can start deriving personality attributes from small bits of information about mobile phone usage for example,” he said. “We can do an awful lot with data to get to those softer [behavioural] attributes. There are interesting opportunities; I don’t think we’re there yet but I think that’s where the market’s going.”

Strong warned though that there has been a tendency on the part of HR professionals to shy away from this. “That’s the sort of thing that gives HR professionals the heeby-jeebies; whereas I think marketers think ‘I can gather as much information as possible, it doesn’t touch me in the same way’ because they don’t see those people,” he said. “For HR it feels somehow wrong to be doing this.”

Ralph Tribe, director of people at Sky UK and Ireland, said HR needed to lose its hang-up around this. “The worry is: what might they use it for? But most human beings don’t wake up in the morning to do bad, so why would people worry too much?” he said. “In work we only ever want data about engagement because we have a vested interest in [employees] being happy.”

Tribe said the real source of HR’s reticence perhaps comes from reluctance to engage with data more generally: “I wonder whether that [HR’s reticence] is the profession trying to dream up things to be worried about rather than going to the facts about what people tend to use data for.”

Stephen Robson, HR director at Kingfisher, cautioned, however, that not all companies will want to track people’s behaviour in such positive ways: “We can sit here and take comfort we’re using it responsibly… but what we know is there are organisations that use data less responsibly, and that’s something we all have to take some responsibility for.”

VP of people and organisational development at The Dorchester Collection Eugenio Pirri called for a balanced approach. “It [collection of people’s data] is already happening. So I think the fact you’re looking at your employees’ behaviour is not that intrusive,” he said.

“The key is: what are you going to do with that data? The most important thing is being transparent. Let your employees know you’re going to look at their behaviour; let them know you’re going to to do a productivity and engagement study. There’s a balance, but I think if you’re transparent then everyone will benefit, including the employee.”

Strong added that for people analytics to be truly successful and avoid “Orwellian dystopian” outcomes, HR must take control of this agenda rather than being led by suppliers.

“There’s a danger third-party technology companies push technology but without fully understanding your agenda. I think for example marketers have slightly lost control of the agenda and let technology run the show. There’s a danger of HR being like marketing was three or four years ago.”

He added that marketers' “guilty secret” was that “they don’t know what to do with [the high volumes of data they have].”

Tribe advised HR professionals navigate this flood by finding “five things” they want to know, then interrogating and focusing ruthlessly on them. “Ask yourself why you want to know it,” he said. “We think we want to know about turnover but you have to think: why? If you can’t answer that in a way that’s clear in your own mind then move on to something else.”

Robson highlighted the need to still use human judgement in decision-making, rather than basing everything on data. “You can get data to say whatever you want it to; you’ve got to be careful with that. You have got to test it to make sure you’re going in the right direction. You have to test your hypothesis.”

“You can get one piece of data that says you need to change in a certain area but another saying that’s your greatest strength. So you need to ask the right question to start with,” agreed Pirri.