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10 Ways Companies Track Employees

Greg de la Cruz works in the tech industry and is the author of two published titles on Amazon.

Have companies gone too far in tracking workers?

Have companies gone too far in tracking workers?

What Is Bossware?

It may look as if you are working a flexible job, where your boss seems to allow for a high degree of autonomy. But not so fast—lurking behind the curtain, unbeknown to many newcomers, is a variety of employee-tracking tools, applications, and systems.

There is a term for these kinds of solutions, which is not widely used yet: bossware.

Writing for The Hill, Matthew Scherer, a senior policy counsel for worker privacy at the Center for Democracy & Technology, describes Bossware as “software that allows supervisors to monitor employees at all times and automate the task of surveilling them.”

How bossware works: “Employers feed the data collected by these systems,” says Scherer, “into algorithmic management platforms that automate tasks traditionally employed by human managers, including assessing workers’ productivity and performance and making disciplinary decisions.”

The pandemic forced a remote work arrangement for many organizations that weren’t used to implementing one before the pandemic. But it’s also worth noting that even before the pandemic, employers were already heavily invested in worker monitoring, whether or not it was apparent to the employees affected.

CCTV cameras (some of which could capture conversations), fingerprint scanners, workstation activity alarm systems—tools like these were already in place before even there was any idea of a pandemic that would change how both workers and organizations viewed work.

Worker monitoring took several steps forward over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, with data suggesting that the sales of some companies providing tracking software surged by 300 percent (according to Patrick Wood in a May 2020 ABC News article).

Let’s examine some of the current ways companies track their workers.

10 Ways Companies Track Employees

Current advances make it possible for companies to provide all-in-one solutions to businesses when it comes to worker monitoring. The products out in the market are now heavily integrated with built-in tools and functionalities that let bosses track working time while measuring keystrokes and enable automated productivity assessments. That said, it’s worth examining each of these ten basic ways that companies track their employees:

  1. Email Monitoring
  2. Voice Recordings
  3. Cameras
  4. Instant Messaging
  5. Keylogging
  6. Behavior
  7. Location
  8. Screenshots
  9. Application or Platform Usage
  10. Time Tracking

1. Email Monitoring

What’s in it for them: Publicized real-life cases like Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos can make any worker both fearful and vigilant when it comes to communicating through email. And this fear and vigilance are for the right reasons, as it’s not only in criminal cases and not just by paranoid organizations that your email is monitored and subsequently used against you.

Through email monitoring, your employer can build almost any case against you, especially if it’s eager to see you out the door. Email communications provide documented proof of almost anything—whether you slighted some higher-up, disclosed confidential information, talked to a competitor, or used your work email for personal purposes.

Why it’s bad for you: While workers often put on an “email voice,” one which is usually more civil and more formal-sounding than it needs to be, knowing that your employer is checking in on your emails (whether real-time or at some point in time) can affect the way you communicate with your colleagues and even your personality outside of work.

2. Voice Recordings

What’s in it for them: Recording phone calls, especially in call center jobs, is often required or even mandated by government regulations. Not only are voice recordings essential in assessing worker performance, but they’re also indispensable in some investigations—especially when an incident involves some harm, fraud, or negligence on the part of the employee.

But what happens when your employer applies the same level of attention even in just ordinary internal meetings? It’s understandable for some internal meetings to get recorded, just so the whole group would not miss out on important decisions and inputs being made (it’s also a good excuse for not taking any notes nor paying the least attention). But what happens when something you said in passing during one of these internal meetings with people whom you’ve grown to trust as colleagues becomes something to incriminate you of some offense later on?

Why it’s bad for you: Some employee tracking via voice recording is practical and necessary, but when it’s used as a tool to hold you accountable or to pin something on you, it makes for an unhealthy work environment. A “chilling effect” will ensue, and it could cause severe consequences that will show up in silent, dead-air meetings.

3. Cameras

What’s in it for them: CCTV cameras are placed in workplaces especially when there’s a risk of theft and dishonesty (such as in manufacturing plants and banks) or when there’s a tendency for workers to loaf around (such as in offices. Indispensable as CCTV cameras are when it comes to workplace investigations, they can be taken too far in today’s culture.

The workplace CCTV camera has unfortunately expanded its function during the pandemic, extending its reach as far as a worker’s own house. While some data security regulations require that the worker be monitored at all times—such as in cases where he’s not allowed to be around any piece of paper throughout his workday—the manner in which laptop cameras are used to check in on workers all the time borderlines on being abusive. A Joseph Gordon-Levitt movie portraying Edward Snowden comes to mind.

Why it’s bad for you: Before the Covid-19 pandemic, there used to be a more distinct line between work and home life, but with the usage of one’s work PC camera as a way to keep tabs on you, that line is not only blurred but crossed. For the lucky few who have legitimate workspaces at home, they probably won’t be as severely affected, but for many who live in studio apartments or even mere bedspaces, giving your employer a complete view of your home is a whole new level of intrusiveness. Some would argue that the worker could always just close down the laptop—well, what if doing so metes a penalty on the worker’s performance?

4. Instant Messaging

What’s in it for them: The modern workplace has made instant messaging applications ubiquitous. What was initially a mode to reduce the volume of emails and internal communications, now has morphed into a tool conducive for collaboration and relationship-building.

Instant messaging provides a way for organizations to effectively work in teams and seamlessly work cross-functionally. These tools may appear to suck productivity by becoming a mimic of social media messaging apps in real life, but they also encourage productivity and teamwork since reaching out to a colleague becomes lightning fast and convenient.

At the same time, instant messaging apps are concurrently used as workforce monitoring tools, as in the case for an app like Microsoft Teams which automatically tags you as “Available” or “Away” (if you’ve not touched your laptop for a bit) or even “Offline” if you’ve been gone a long time. The Teams app provides real-time productivity analytics to bosses and management, while also being useful to catch snippets of casual conversation of someone trying to leak company secrets or maybe change jobs.

Why it’s bad for you: Not only are your casual conversations being monitored (which, unlike in the case of emails where you have more restraint), your actual productivity seems to be analyzed, too. Because it is nearly impossible to not work in groups or teams in the modern workplace, your activity in an instant messaging application can provide an easy measure of whether you’ve been performing your job up to expectations or not.

5. Keylogging

What’s in it for them: Sometimes it’s not enough for bosses and employers to just know the contents of your emails, chats, and voice interactions—they also need to know, character-for-character, what you typed into your work PC. Not only does keylogging intrude into every conversation, search query, code, and command, but it also captures all of your log-in credentials. With that in mind, it’s a fair warning to anyone who dares use company hardware for personal purposes such as online banking, social media, and non-work email.

While employers normally have a record of all your work credentials, keylogging takes worker monitoring to the next level. Especially with businesses that handle customer transactions, especially those involving credit card information or health status, keylogging can in some cases be downright illegal.

Why it’s bad for you: Many workers during the pandemic were guilty of using their work hardware for personal use. Some were not careful enough and were caught having a second job. And some who were too complacent used their work PCs to access their banks and online funds, endangering their own finances. Because every stroke is recorded, keylogging compromises your personal data privacy.

6. Behavior

What’s in it for them: Some organizations manage workers as if they were machines. Not only are cutting-edge human resource management (HRM) tools able to track vacation days, sick days, compensation, worker referrals, personal details, etc., but all the information put together in HRM applications can track a worker’s behavior.

HRM tools became increasingly more valuable for employers during the worst of the pandemic, as managers and supervisors had to become proactive in keeping track of their team members’ status and behavior. For example, in a remote workforce setup, it’s not so easy monitoring attendance when you don’t see your people enough—and so, leaders turn to HRM tools for a solution.

Why it’s bad for you: HRM tools, as advanced as they have already become, may not provide the full picture of your performance. As an individual worker, your job tasks, functions, goals and targets are communicated to you by your boss; however, your actual performance may not be easily communicated back to him or her especially if these HRM tools are heavily relied upon.

These tools track productivity by grading your browser history, platform usage, time spent on non-work apps, etc., and aggregate all of that together to come up with a score. The score may or may not reflect your actual behavior.

7. Location

What’s in it for them: Another unfortunate consequence of the rise of remote work is that employers somehow want to know where you are. If you are bringing with you a company-owned device, chances are they know exactly where you are at any given moment. But isn’t it illegal for anyone to track your location without your prior consent? It’s a little bit of a gray area.

Bosses generally need to know that when you’re “on duty” you’re actually in a space where you can do work. What happens if your company device tags you in some bar or club? Can your boss conclude that you’re skipping work, even if you’re still sending in emails using your phone?

Why it’s bad for you: Obviously, there’s a personal security risk here, even if it doesn’t seem like your employer would use your location information in any harmful way. Tracking your location is just another Big-Brothery way for your employer to assert its power.

8. Screenshots

What’s in it for them: Some employers take real-time screenshots of every employee’s desktop or screen to check if what’s in there is actually work-related. The offense doesn’t seem to be that you actually used your work PC to access personal emails—it’s somehow already enough that you even attempted to do so.

Some real-time screenshotting is warranted, as these can be helpful for investigations, but when such a measure is used just to pin you for so-called “time-theft,” even if you just wanted to peek into a personal message, then maybe your employer has gone overboard.

Why it’s bad for you: Many call centers in India and the Philippines mandate the prohibition of bringing in cellphones and other personal digital devices into the office space. While these measures are mainly so the company can comply with data security regulations, ISO standard, etc., the coupling of these rules with screenshot recording makes it impossible for a worker to communicate to the outside world except when on breaks (which are often strictly metered). An employer has essentially created an environment akin to working inside a mine or a fort, and this is how you can see firsthand how an employee’s time is “owned.”

9. Application or Platform Usage

What’s in it for them: As mentioned above, employers can utilize HRM tools to monitor worker behavior. They use these applications to answer questions like, “Is this employee a slacker?” or “Why is this team member inactive during this part of the day?” These HRM tools and other related applications in the market often utilize AI to score and rank employees based on application and platform usage.

As an example, a sales associate who would be seen using Twitter more heavily than he would use Salesforce could easily score lower than someone who used Salesforce more. Managers and supervisors will be saved man hours trying to assess and rank their members since there are already tools out there that can do the job—and this is exactly the selling point behind these solutions.

Why it’s bad for you: It shows that, at the end of the day, you’re really just a cog in the wheel. And you’re only ever as good as yesterday. Slacking performance will show up on these tools, and your manager, if he relies heavily on these, will without a doubt take notice.

10. Time Tracking

What’s in it for them: Last but not the least, time-tracking. It is perhaps the oldest way to track workers and continues to be indispensable in the modern age, especially since some workers are paid on an hourly basis. Some employers, to save money, will deduct pay on lates, undertimes, over-breaks, and even unauthorized overtime.

At the end of the day, as an ordinary employee, you work for someone else’s business, and as a business, it will do whatever it can to save on operational expenses. While there are already countless organizations that don’t care much about how you spend your work hours nor how much you actually spend working, there are still many who do—and it will continue to be that way.

Why it’s bad for you: All of the things on this list give a whiff of micromanaging, and the latter simply perpetuates a stressful and unhealthy work culture. Time-tracking adds a direct financial aspect to micromanaging, as you will be held instantly accountable through your next paycheck.

Worker Monitoring vs. Leadership Development

Some view this emphasis of organizations on worker monitoring and surveillance as a band-aid on a more serious problem: the lack of leadership development.

When you have competent leaders who know how to get their own team to work efficiently and bring out the best in them, do you really need to implement some, or at worst all of these employee-tracking measures? Granted, there are some of these measures that are mandated by law and are practical—but a careful line must be drawn by organizations between what’s needed as a safeguard versus what’s convenient.

Having great leaders and managers inside an organization dispenses the need for many of these monitoring mechanisms. Talented leaders know how to add the human touch that’s severely lacking in many of the advanced employee-tracking tools today.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Greg de la Cruz