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Big Brother and good management

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on August 29, 2003
(Issue 2135, Gadgets and Gizmos)

A review copy of a new version of a corporate spyware product arrived in the e-mail in-box the other day.

The folks at SpectorSoft ( sell a series of products that allow employers to record everything employees do on their PCs while at work.

At first glance, that seems reasonable – you want to know that your staff is actually getting some work done while on the clock. After all, you're not paying them to screw around on the Internet or send personal e-mail.

Keeping an eye on them will help improve productivity, right?


A recent study confirmed earlier ones that showed that those companies that turn a blind eye to employees' personal use of the Internet (within reason) had higher productivity than those that crack down!

Of course, anyone with an ounce of common sense could have predicted that.

If employees look forward to coming to work, feel valued for their contributions, and are able to take care of a few small personal chores (say, checking their bank balance to make sure a check won't bounce), they'll perform better.

A healthy balance

Sure, businesses want to know that their employees aren't wasting their time at work – but there are methods for doing so that are both more humane and more effective from a business standpoint.

It's called management.

If an employee isn't pulling her or his own weight, their supervisor surely ought to be able to figure it out. If the work isn't getting done, either the employee doesn't have the skills to do the work properly or they're not making the effort.

Regardless, you can figure that out without resorting to spyware. Don't measure how many keystrokes per minute an employee performs – measure how much work they're getting done.

When you start trying to quantify what is good performance, you stifle innovation and creativity – ultimately hurting your operation.

A union recruiter's best friend

The other thing that recent study found was that heavy-handed enforcement of workplace rules diminishes employee morale – another productivity-killer.

In fact, it's hard to imagine a more efficient way of driving your employees into the arms of union recruiters than spying on them. The implicit message that they're not trusted is guaranteed to destroy any loyalty your staff might feel to the operation. And once you get into an adversarial, us vs. them relationship with your staff, it's mighty hard to undo the damage.

Some hard-nosed managers are likely to say fine – you don't want to be here, then leave.

The problem with that attitude is which employees do you lose? If you create or allow an unhealthy workplace environment to fester, the first people you lose are those who are good enough to get hired elsewhere.

In other words, by busting the chops of your staff for sending a few personal e-mails or checking the box scores of last night's game, you drive your best employees away – often into the arms of your competitors.

Who's left? The dregs – the folks nobody else wants, or those so totally lacking ambition that they don't bother looking.

Hardly seems a recipe for economic success.

And yet, in spite of the fact that study after study, research on top of research all show that a friendly, family-oriented style of management produces the best results for both the company and the employees – higher profits and lower stress – too many managers react with fear rather than leadership, and install spyware on their company's PCs.

There's a reason American businesses continue to fall behind the rest of the world in productivity, and it's got nothing to do with the talents, work ethic or efforts of American workers.