Big Brother Brings Big Benefit and Big Questions to the Workplace

Carl Weinschenk
Slide Show

Study Shows Employees Steal Corporate Data and Don’t Believe It’s Wrong

Employers have used every tool available to keep an eye on workers. It is a reasonable assumption that various electronic devices can be a key tool in these efforts. Researchers from three universities found that electronic surveillance reduces theft and improves work output when employees know that big brother is watching.

Though many find electronic surveillance distasteful, there is little doubt—at least according to Lamar Pierce of Washington University, Daniel Snow of Brigham Young University, and Andrew McAfee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—that it works. According to their report:

Our results suggest that when management implements increased monitoring under a pay for performance scheme, employees will redirect effort toward productivity because their incentives have been realigned. Furthermore, our results suggest that the majority of improvement in organizational performance and productivity stems from the improved behavior of existing employees, not from the firing of those engaged in theft. The treatment of individual workers, not worker selection, appears to drive most productivity improvements and theft reductions. This does not mean that worker selection is unimportant in our story. In fact, those workers who stole under the weaker monitoring regime appear to self-select out of the more highly-monitored restaurants, perhaps to other more easily pilfered establishments.

BusinessWeek’s story on the study describes precisely what it looked at—it takes a trained eye to translate true academic studies—and provides analysis. The story mentions the bigger picture of the surveillance being carried out by the National Security Agency and suggests that the use of electronics isn’t necessarily appropriate for society at large:

A wider question is what happens when it’s not just employees of a chain restaurant being subjected to surveillance, but an entire society. On Monday, the Guardian newspaper posted a roundup of surveillance-related studies and came to this conclusion: ‘Research shows that indiscriminate monitoring fosters distrust, conformity and mediocrity.’

The study has generated a good amount of comment, but the key takeaway from the commentary is that the real benefit of the electronic surveillance is that people work harder and otherwise act better when they believe that they are being watched. More coverage of the topic can be found in The New York Times and, a bit more indirectly, at LinkedIn.

What is largely absent from the commentary to this point, though, is a discussion of the appropriate limits of such surveillance. It surely will come up soon, because it is an important topic with which people know they must deal, and the academic study is an excellent jumping off point for such a discussion.

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