Wearable Tech: Tool for Workplace Improvement or Invasion of Employee Privacy?

Wearable Tech: Tool for Workplace Improvement or Invasion of Employee Privacy?

Employers looking for more precise ways to measure productivity can outfit their employees with wearable technological devices—similar to those currently worn by fitness enthusiasts—that measure brain activity, record movement and even monitor posture.

Brent Blum, wearable technology practice lead for Accenture Technology Labs, told Bloomberg BNA that the use of wearable tech has validity if the collection of data from such devices supports a work function and is part of a job.

However, maintaining employee privacy and complying with local, state and federal restrictions is equally important. And a shift would have to occur in the way workers think about this technology.

“Human resources is going to need to be able to make the case that this makes the company more profitable, more secure, more successful and that employee data is private and secure,” Blum said.

Carol Olsby, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management's technology panel, who also served as an HR executive at several tech companies, told Bloomberg BNA that employees who are more “technology-centric” are more likely to embrace this. Companies might have to do more communication, based on their workforces' experience with technology, she said.

Olsby added that sharing with employees why the company is incorporating wearables into the workplace and how both employees and the company will benefit is important. “Theoretically, it can be used to manage and monitor performance,” she said. “So I think there needs to be a lot of communication around the ‘why' if people are not in a technology-centered company.”

According to Blum, the devices will be most and best used for the less controversial purposes of managing workplace access and authenticating employee identity—as opposed to monitoring biometric data and tracking capabilities.

“If this device is able to use my unique biometric data to passively grant me access to the proper resources without my involvement, I still think that is useful. As an industry we need to identify how that data is stored and how that is communicated to employees,” Blum said.

Legal Concerns

Employee privacy attorney Christin McMeley, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine's Washington office, told Bloomberg BNA that employers have been looking at monitoring employees and employee privacy issues for quite some time. And although the new technology has the potential to be more invasive, the issues are the same.

“Does the employee have an expectation of privacy? What kind of notice is the employer going to give to defeat that expectation of privacy?” she asked. “The legal issues can be dealt with. I think that it is really more about the culture of the workplace and workplace morale,” she said.

“Understanding your employees, creating a conversation and being clear about why the company is collecting this data and how information will be used” are all critical issues for employers that want to introduce wearable tech at their workplaces, McMeley said.

“It will be interesting to see how the law responds to this,” she added. “If companies start to use this technology, for their own legal protection they are going to want to make sure they have given notice to the employees, that they have policies about how the technology will be used, what information will be collected and that the policies are employed and enforced consistently across the workforce,” she said.

Wearable tech is the focus of a Strategic White Paper published as part of Bloomberg BNA’s HR Decision Support Network, and is also covered in a video interview with attorney Christin McMeley. Start your free trial to HR Decision Support Network today.