Managers looking to run a tight ship should be wary about keeping an overbearing eye on their employees.
A study by Harvard Business Review found that employees given a series of tasks were more likely to cheat despite being told they would be working under electronic surveillance than those who were not told they would be monitored.
The study, which looked at the behavior of 200 US-based employees, noted that employees are either motivated by external factors such as the threat of punishment or the promise of reward, or by their internal moral compass.
After the study, the authors concluded that when workers are monitored, they shift the responsibility of their actions onto the figure overseeing their surveillance rather than onto themselves and were more likely to act in a way that runs counter to their own moral standards.
“Our studies showed that monitoring employees causes them to subconsciously feel that they are less responsible for their own conduct, thus making them more likely to act immorally,” the authors of the study said.
Harvard Business Review similarly found in another 100-employee study that monitored workers “were substantially more likely to take unapproved breaks, disregard instructions, damage workplace property, steal office equipment, and purposefully work at a slow pace.”
Employee tracking searches ‘through the roof’
The study comes at a time when the global demand for employee monitoring has risen exponentially in the post-pandemic work life.
In April 2020, online searches for “how to monitor employees working from home” increased by 1,705%, and sales for systems that track workers’ activity through desktop monitoring, keystroke tracking, video surveillance, GPS location tracking, and other tools “went through the roof,” according to the study authors.
Some tracking, though, can be used for good.
Microsoft is developing a system which would use smartwatches to collect data on employees’ blood pressure and heart rate to measure anxiety and wellness within their employees.
However, companies like Amazon have a more controversial history of tracking the efficiency of its workers and reprimanding them if they don’t work quickly enough.
The online giants track smartphone data to measure delivery driver efficiency and safety outside of its warehouses, while inside, Amazon uses scanners to tell workers when and how to process an amazon order and times their speed to ensure they are working at the correct pace.
How to track better
If employers are still interested in monitoring their employees, the authors of the study advise companies to consult the employees on the planned surveillance.
“As a starting point, rather than unilaterally implementing a monitoring system, leaders should find ways to give employees visibility and input into when surveillance is appropriate and when it should be off-limits — and then stick to those boundaries.”
They also note leaders should give their employers access to the data they collect, in the form of aggregated anonymized data and should clearly communicate what it will be used for.
Harvard Business Review cited one study which found that even explaining the scope and purpose of the monitoring boosted employees’ acceptance of the practice by about 70%.
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com