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Big brother just got bigger

September 12, 2011


Some employers go to extraordinary lengths to monitor their employees’ movements. RailCorp, for example, plans to introduce fingerprint scanning (otherwise known as biometrics) for employees at fixed locations, while people working on multiple sites will be tracked by the GPS on their phone.

Alex Claassens, the NSW Branch Secretary of the Rail Tram & Bus Union, told me he doesn’t believe these measures are being brought in to combat tardy employees, but he’s still concerned about “the potential for misuse of what will be personal and sensitive information.”

A host of businesses have popped up to service the insatiable demand of time-sensitive employers. As profiled in a MySmallBusiness article last year, these include software companies that link data from computers, phones and swipe cards as a way of arming managers with the statistics they need to discipline latecomers.

Another government department, Centrelink, made the news earlier this week when it was revealed their call centre employees have their toilet breaks timed. If they exceed the five-minute limit, their boss reprimands them – after the employee is made to explain what took so long.

That story, though, is unfair on Centrelink. There would have been hundreds of call centre managers around the country breathing a sigh of relief that it wasn’t their operation in the spotlight. That’s because this obsession with timekeeping is endemic in an industry where the practice at Centrelink is the norm rather than the exception.

Since call centres are among the most easily measured departments in any organisation, managers make the overzealous error of measuring everything … just because they can. What they end up creating is a bunch of overwhelmed employees who feel as though their every action is scrutinised. And recorded.

Professor Rowena Barrett is head of Edith Cowan University’s School of Management. I asked her whether the use of time-monitoring technologies, such as biometrics and GPS tracking, is good from an employee perspective.

“I don’t think this approach would be at all effective,” she said. “If employees know what their expectations and goals are and have the tools and skills to achieve them, then there is no need to micromanage them. Micromanagement does suggest a lack of trust.

“The only times such an approach might be necessary is when employees are working in a hazardous or high-risk situation, but even then, these techniques would be used with the agreement of both employer and employee knowing employee safety was the overriding concern.”

Some employers have a right to be vigilant with employee lateness. For instance, if a retail store is meant to be open at 9am, it’s important to have staff there on time. But on occasions where managers have used employees’ tardiness as a way of terminating their employment, the results have been mixed.

In January, a weighbridge operator was sacked for being habitually late for his 6am shift. Last month, he won $5000 in compensation when the Fair Work Australia Commissioner concluded the supervisor’s warnings to the worker were “somewhat inconsistent”.

In April, there was another case, this time before the Federal Magistrates Court, which resulted in a different outcome. An employee who continuously arrived late was fired, and he launched legal action in retaliation. He claimed his lateness was due to a lack of sleep caused by a young child. The Court found in favour of the employer, stating family issues weren’t reason enough for poor timekeeping, especially when many parents manage to get to work on time.

Dr Kerry Patterson is co-author of Crucial Confrontations. I asked him for his suggestions on how managers can deal with chronically late employees.

Rule number one: “Make sure the rule is clear,” he said, and give employees sufficient warning before you enforce a lateness policy. “You will want to talk to the team, and specifically to the late arrivers, to explain the policy and to let them know you will be enforcing it.”

Rule number two: “Have the crucial confrontation.” When lateness becomes a pattern “describe the gap between what you expect and what you’ve observed, and probe for the cause of the problem.” Also, explain the consequences of continued lateness, and ask employees for ideas on how their punctuality can be improved.

Rule number three: “Impose the consequences.” But do this only if you’re certain you’ve had the necessary conversations and given the requisite warnings. If “the latecomers have already agreed on a plan, and they have failed to live up to their agreements”, only then is it appropriate to proceed with disciplinary action.

So, how about that old maxim, ‘better late than never’? For a lot of managers, it’s more a case of ‘better never than late’.

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