Wearable Tech Offers Brave New World for Employers, Workers

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By Genevieve Douglas

Wearable technology can be as innocuous as a Fitbit or as science fiction-like as an implanted microchip. Either way, employers should tread carefully with this growing workplace trend, attorneys tell Bloomberg BNA.

Wearable technology most recently grabbed the spotlight when a vending technology company in Wisconsin announced that employees could choose to have a microchip embedded in their hand in lieu of having a more traditional ID badge. Although the microchips offer convenience and opportunities for workers, it has led some to ask, “how far is too far in wearable tech?”

Wearable devices can bring a lot of positives for the way employees work, but they can also have a negative effect on morale and productivity, attorney Jason Branciforte, a shareholder in Littler Mendelson’s Washington office, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 3.

If workers are required to have a host of devices that can distract them, “it lessens productivity, it lessens physical and interpersonal interaction in the workplace,” Branciforte said. If the devices become the focal point of the workplace, rather than the work itself and collaboration with colleagues, “I think that has a negative impact on the workplace,” he said.

Tech Must Benefit Workers

Technology that’s good for the workplace is designed to help employee performance, and “that’s really key,” Don MacPherson, head of global talent marketing for Aon Hewitt, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 3. If a company is going to use wearable tech, it has to be sure of this benefit for employees because “if it’s used as a big brother technology, the company runs a great risk” of alienating employees, he said.

Employees have long been skeptical of management, MacPherson said, and if they suspect that they’re being tracked or monitored, then they will be less engaged and productive. If the technology is rolled out in a way that is “forced” or requires immediate compliance, “it can be heavy handed and employees lose trust in the organization,” he said.

Overall, HR and employers have to consider whether the workforce is ready for a new device or technological advancement, MacPherson said. If there is a culture of trust and understanding, and employees are willing to listen to the benefits of the technology, then such devices will likely improve the workplace, he said.

But the lure of technology is so great that its existence in the workplace will likely be an eventual reality for all employees, MacPherson noted. “Every organization is going to have some form of wearable technology and employees will be required to comply,” he said.

MacPherson warned, however, that if companies abuse the privilege of the technology, their reputation will be tarnished and the business will suffer.

Compliance Reminders

On the legal compliance side of wearable technology, HR should ensure its use is within the bounds of state and federal privacy laws, Branciforte said. For example, devices that have the ability to do audio or video recording should be carefully vetted in states where both parties have to consent to such monitoring, he said.

States may also have differing laws on taking pictures or videos of workers without their consent, he added.

Devices that can track employees throughout their day, whether at work or off-duty, may also open employers up to risk of litigation, Nicole Black, a Rochester, N.Y., attorney and legal technology “evangelist” at MyCase legal software company, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 3.

Wearable tech data that inadvertently provide details of an employee’s religious affiliation, medical issues, or other protected trait could create the basis for a discrimination issue if that employee is fired, Black said. Employers should be aware that there is a risk to knowing where and how employees operate outside of work, she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington at gdouglas@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at tharris@bna.com

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