Today, monitoring technologies are increasingly inexpensive—and staggeringly expansive. This has made it easier than ever for managers to intensively monitor employees at work. These technologies run the gamut, from body-worn cameras and closed-circuit televisions, to traceable identification cards and keystroke trackers. Managers in banks, hospitals, police departments, call-centers, and retail outlets who want to know what employees are up to can now quite easily do so.
The managerial aspiration for such increased surveillance is clear: less misbehavior and implicitly better performance. What’s less obvious, though, is what other behaviors such surveillance might promote. Our research, based on interviews with 89 Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees and their managers a decade after 9/11, suggests that increased monitoring can lead to a cycle of increasingly coercive surveillance. Ultimately, we conclude, employers may be unaware that the effects of surveillance may go well beyond the initial, and often relatively innocuous, reason they chose to monitor employees.
Right before the start of our study in 2011, new closed-circuit television cameras were installed at all airport checkpoints—covering almost all the various positions the officers rotated through, from checking travelers’ documents to operating body-scan machines. This wasn’t directly in response to issues of national security. Rather, this surge in surveillance was in part triggered by travelers’ repeated complaints that their belongings went missing during screenings. Two years earlier, TSA had received more than 7,000 claims for passengers’ property loss from checked-in baggage and at checkpoints.
It would make sense, then, that managers decided to install cameras to catch employees in the act of thieving, or to demonstrate to travelers that theft was not occurring by their employees’ hands at the checkpoints. Many TSA officers and managers suspected that theft was mostly happening elsewhere, such as when airline staff and not TSA officers handled travelers’ luggage.
But even if managers had intended for the monitoring efforts to protect employees from false accusations, the prevalent sentiment expressed by TSA employees was that managers were watching them to control them, making sure that every single, little thing that they did was exactly and precisely as planned. TSA officers expressed the sense of constantly being seen by higher-ups. For instance, an officer explained, “They [management] want to see what you’re doing sitting at this chair, they want to see what you’re doing when you get on this computer, they want to see what you’re doing when you’re operating this machine…” Officers used words like “Big Brother” and “spying” to articulate how managers were monitoring them, suggesting strongly that they really did not like the feeling of constantly being seen.
At the same time, however, officers expressed that even though they were constantly seen, they were almost never noticed. At first, we thought we were misunderstanding them. “Didn’t you just say you felt constantly seen?” we would ask. Yes, they would tell us, but “being seen” was simply not the same as “being noticed.” In fact, the more managers observed their every move, the more officers felt that they were no longer noticed as distinct and unique individuals. Officers spoke about not being seen “as a person” at work. In fact, employees thought they were really only noticed as individuals when they made a mistake or even when their ID badge was just facing the wrong way. One officer said he felt like managers were “looking for excuses to slap you on the hand.”
Under such circumstances, the officers felt that the best way to handle this work context was to try to engage in what we call invisibility practices. They first did so by seeking some respite from the monitoring systems in subtle ways: some employees mentioned going to the restroom a lot or taking a bit longer to walk through unmonitored areas between assigned tasks.
Second, they also attempted not to “stick out” as individuals. “You might get noticed for the wrong reasons,” said one officer, “so I would rather just do my job and go home, rather than be noticed a lot and… then maybe later get in trouble for something.” The officer continued, “It’s hard to be noticed as a good worker… There’s people who do their job better than others, and sometimes you don’t get noticed for that… [so] most of the time it doesn’t really matter about being noticed, because sometimes it’s just better to float under the radar and not have people know who you are.” Going “under the radar” meant using tactics, such as keeping one’s private life out of work so managers had nothing personal or particular to remember and avoiding conversations with managers in order to be “left alone” and remain “not known.”
There is an irony of these invisibility practices: Employees engaged in them to seek some respite from what they interpreted as coercive surveillance. But the more they did so, the more managers could potentially recognize that employees were trying to escape the monitoring systems. And because it was harder for managers to get to know their employees as individual people, mistrust spiraled out of control. As a result, added monitoring measures were seen as justifiable by management.
That’s what we label the cycle of coercive surveillance: a rise in managerial monitoring that can be interpreted by employees as a coercive surveillance effort, fostering invisibility practices among employees that then lead managers to distrust their employees, allowing managers to feel justified in requesting even more surveillance systems.
Not all organizations get stuck in this cycle, of course. And if managers can recognize upfront the unintended consequences of increased surveillance, they might help derail these dynamics. But they should expect that increased surveillance may also fuel the occurrence of invisibility practices. Already, some law enforcement precincts have reported that police officers occasionally forget or turn off their body-worn cameras when they are supposed to keep them on. In the 20th century, intensively controlled manufacturing plants gave rise to coping strategies of workers’ strikes aimed at stopping production. In the 21st century, we may be seeing something of a corollary happening in surveillance-heavy workplaces. Except instead of coping by displaying themselves on picket lines, today’s workers might be resorting to disappearing in plain sight.