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Big data Your employer might be watching you. Should you care?

surveillance cameras

A 2018 survey by Accenture found that 88% of workers in Switzerland are open to the collection of data on them if it improves their performance or wellbeing. 

(Keystone / Mark Lennihan)

Imagine if your employer recorded your every click, step, conversation, and bathroom break to determine your mood, how well you collaborate with people of the same sex, and if you are likely to quit your job next month. This new wave of workforce data analytics, catching on in many industries globally, is raising tough questions in Switzerland with its strong culture of trust and privacy.

Recently, an employee at the University of Applied Sciences in Lucerne found an infrared sensorexternal link under his desk. The university says it informed employees ahead of time about the installation and that it only intends to monitor occupancy rates for building planning purposes. However, some employees told the newspaper 20 Minutes that it couldn’t brush off the unsettling feeling that they were being watched.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning and Big Data are making possible what human resource managers could only imagine a decade ago. But the technologies are not without controversy.

The prospect of employee surveillance is alluring to Swiss companies and particularly large multinationals, says Antoinette Weibel. She is the project leader of a study at the University of St Gallen looking at so-called datafication technologiesexternal link in Swiss workplaces.

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(Kai Reusser / swissinfo.ch)

Legal limits

Weibel’s study, which is expected to be published this fall, surveyed 160 companies in Switzerland and found that 61% are using datafication-based human resources systems in retention and transition, 38% for workplace design, 37% in performance management, 21% recruiting and hiring and 18% in compliance.

While not a direct comparison, these rates are much lower than the estimated 80% of companiesexternal link in the US, according to one survey, that are monitoring employees’ use of e-mail, Internet or phone, up from the 35% in 1997.

That’s partially because Switzerland’s labour and data protection lawsexternal link are more restrictive, explains Weibel.

“Companies are more likely to test new tools in other markets like the US where much more is allowed.”

David Vasella, an attorney specialising in data protection at the Zurich-based firm Walder Wyss, told swissinfo.ch that there are two general rules for data collection in Switzerland: “First, don’t process personal data unless you make it transparent. Companies need to inform people of what they are collecting.”

“Second, don’t collect data that you don’t need,” he said. “There has to be a legitimate interest for collecting data.”

+ Learn more about other Swiss research projects on Big Data

In practice, this means employers can monitor employees for performance reasons, but such monitoring may not be continuous nor is it permitted in privacy-sensitive areas such as break rooms or bathrooms. Employers must also inform employees that they will monitor them unless the employers suspect criminal conduct.

Most of the actual monitoring in Swiss workplaces is happening in the area of compliance, Weibel said. This includes detecting risks of insider tradingexternal link or sexual harassmentexternal link. Only a few companies are experimenting with sophisticated techniques such as sentiment analysisexternal link that uses data mining and machine learning technologies to comb through text to determine a person’s emotional state or level of satisfaction.

Unclear business

Overall, Switzerland has more privacy-related legal protections in place than many non-European countries. Still, companies could get away with extensive monitoring, arguing that it served their legitimate interests. Vasella says “the concept of legitimate interests is a fluid one. There are still a lot of murky areas.”

This is especially true as private and professional lives blur with flexible work arrangements. More companies are also introducing Bring Your Own Deviceexternal link policies or allowing work phones and platforms to be used for personal communication.

It isn’t just a question of what is being collected, said Weibel. “It is how it is being collected, how behaviors are being analysed and then, what is being done with the results.”

Critics of employee surveillance point out that the information gathered from cameras, social media activity, or implanted radio frequency identification chips could be misused, for example to discriminate against staffers for their personal views. Some researchexternal link also shows that the feeling of constantly being monitored can be harmful to employee health.

In 2017, the European Court of Human Rightsexternal link set a precedent across Europe when it ruled that the right to private life of a Romanian engineer was not upheld when he was dismissed for exchanging messages on an office account about his sexual health with his fiancée. The judgement stated that an employer “cannot reduce private social life in the workplace to zero. Respect for private life and for the privacy of correspondence continues to exist, even if these may be restricted in so far as necessary”.

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Navigating murky waters

Dagmar Fresenius, head of human resources rewards and analytics at Swisscom, the country’s largest telecommunications company, says the company requires her team to start any workplace analytics process with a specific business question.

“For example, how can we increase sales performance, how can we avoid absenteeism, or why are people leaving the company?” she says. “We are not doing exploratory analytics, meaning putting all the data we have in a pot and seeing what we can find out.”

Fresenius said that the company would also not explore unrealistic hypotheses. “We could have a hypothesis that females are better salespeople than males,” said Fresenius. “But management can’t turn the males into females or only hire women. That would be discriminatory. So, there is no reason to collect gender data.”

+ Read more on the popularity of sensor tracking

Where should employers draw the line?

Isabel Ebert, one of the St Gallen study authors, argues that for employers, deciding where to draw the line is increasingly about ethics and acceptance by employees and the public, especially since there are so many legal grey areas.

Vasella, the Zurich attorney, agrees.

“From a risk perspective, companies should have a more holistic view,” he said. “They should think about how they want to position themselves vis-a-vis employees. Something may be permitted legally but is not socially acceptable.”

It helps when employees see clear benefits of any monitoring, Fresenius said.

“If it will make working life better, for example by helping them avoid repetitive work, they will appreciate it.”

A 2018 surveyexternal link by consulting firm Accenture found that 88% of workers in Switzerland are open to the collection of data on them and their work if it improves their performance or wellbeing or provides other personal benefits. The global average stood at 89 percent.

But even when a technology improves the employee experience, not everyone is on board. When Swisscom conducted a Smart Data pilot four years ago to determine what kind of collaboration is increasing stress, the company found that about half of employees asked to participate in the pilot project declined to participate.

This didn't surprise Fresenius given the sensitivity of the data, which included mobile phone and email information.

The trust factor

Even if there are individual privacy concerns, Swiss employees fundamentally trust their employers. Switzerland consistently ranks near the top when it comes to levels of trust in institutionsexternal link.

Who do you trust? 

The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometerexternal link found that globally employers are more trusted than any other entity or institution. It found that some 75 percent of people trust “my employer” to do what is right, significantly more than NGOs (57 percent), business (56 percent) and media (47 percent).

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Paolo Attivissimo, a tech expert based in Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, told swissinfo that this trust could open the door for companies to experiment with monitoring. “People trust that their employers will treat them with respect,” he said. “New technology may be more acceptable here, because people believe the employer does what it says it is doing. In other countries, you might find more suspicion.”

But that also means there is a lot to lose in terms of eroding that trust. Research suggests external linkthat monitoring an employee’s every move can decimate employee morale and lead to suspicion within teams and within the company. The Accenture survey found that in Switzerland, more than half of workers think that the use of new sources of workforce data risks damaging trust.

Swisscom has not yet received any employee complaints from the more than 4,000 workers participating in its human resources analytics surveys, Fresenius said. She believes being transparent about what is being collected and for what purpose as well as working with labour unions are key to maintaining trust.

For Weibel of the University of St Gallen the future of employee surveillance will be determined by lawmakers, but also by how individual human resources departments implement the technology at their disposal and navigate the legal loopholes.

“Not all companies will do it in the right way.”

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