Your Boss Won't Stop Spying on You (Because It Works)

No one likes the idea of a workplace in which managers keep a constant eye on employees. Workers find it creepy, and it’s not as if ambitious managers clawed their way up the ladder just to snoop on their underlings all day. Still, much of the surveillance now takes place electronically—in theory, freeing bosses to focus on other matters while monitoring software keeps everyone in line. So office spying isn’t going away.

A study published over the weekend by researchers suggests that electronic surveillance in the workplace is strikingly effective (PDF). An examination of data provided by NCR, which makes software that examines all activity on restaurants’ point-of-sale systems while looking for suspect patterns, found lower levels of theft under workplace surveillance. NCR even says that employees seem to become more productive in other ways.

The idea that people act differently when they think they are being observed goes back at least to the 18th century, when British philosopher Jeremy Bentham came up with the idea for the Panopticon. He envisioned a prison with a tall tower encircled by cells, so that each prisoner knew he could be watched at any moment. Bentham’s prison was never built, but his idea has become a metaphor for creepy social control of all forms. With the National Security Agency’s surveillance dominating the news for the last several months, Panopticon paranoia is running particularly high.

The new study—conducted by Lamar Pierce of Washington University, Daniel Snow of Brigham Young University, and Andrew McAfee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—paints ubiquitous surveillance in a pretty bright light. They looked at 392 locations of five restaurants chains. Under monitoring, eateries using NCR’s surveillance software experienced a 22 percent drop in theft, and revenue increased by 7 percent. Worker productivity edged up, a phenomenon probably tied to the reduction in theft: In a restaurant setting, the only reliable way to make up income lost in a crackdown on skimming off the top is to earn more tips. Bring on the hidden cameras!

The study does not examine the impact on employees who never intended to steal in the first place. It breaks employees into two groups: “known thieves” who have a history or dishonesty and “unknown” persons who haven’t been caught stealing—yet. Other studies have shown that workplace surveillance weighs on the “unknowns.” One survey, for instance, found that “employees who had their performance electronically monitored perceived their working conditions as more stressful and reported higher levels of job boredom, psychological tension, anxiety, depression, anger, health complaints, and fatigue.” Whether this would matter to employers who enjoy higher profits as a result of surveillance is unclear.

A wider question is what happens when it’s not just employees of a chain restaurant being subjected to surveillance, but an entire society. On Monday, the Guardian newspaper posted a roundup of surveillance-related studies and came to this conclusion: “Research shows that indiscriminate monitoring fosters distrust, conformity and mediocrity.”

On the other hand, it does keep waiters from stealing.

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