Why CoStar’s Alleged Employee Surveillance Program Could Backfire

When the coronavirus pandemic started, it created many changes in the way we work and live. One of the biggest adjustments has been the expansion of remote work. But this change has not been easy, especially for employers.

One of the concerns of employers is that they cannot monitor employees as effectively when working from home. There are several possible motivations for an employer to want to keep track of how employees are working from home. One of the most important is to make sure employees do their jobs and work as efficiently as possible.

This has led some employers to keep tabs on their employees while working remotely. One such company is CoStar.

CoStar Employee Monitoring Activity Reports

CoStar was recently accused to spy on their employees remotely, in addition to fostering an unpleasant work culture. And at least some of this surveillance of employees was supposedly done without their knowledge. The following are examples of surveillance allegations against CoStar:

  • Members of CoStar’s IT department are instructed to make unscheduled video calls to employees for information on how quickly the employee responded, whether he activated his camera when he picked up the phone, where found the employee when he answered and what he was wearing. If asked why he called, the caller had to say that he was checking the performance of CoStar’s virtual private network.
  • Discipline employees when they do not answer a video call after three attempts.
  • Managers monitor employee phone calls, internal messages and their updates in the company database.
  • Take note of the time employees took for their breaks or were away from their desks.

These stories, if true, are certainly not flattering to CoStar as an employer. And while they are effective at improving or maintaining productivity levels, they have several potential drawbacks.

Disadvantage #1: It Might Be Illegal

Generally speaking, it is legal for employers to monitor their employees. This includes tracking them on GPS, observing them on camera, logging their keystrokes on a computer, or logging their activity on the internet. Still, a few states might have data or personal data privacy laws that might make certain surveillance activities illegal.

For example, if the employer is recording the employee’s phone calls, they may need the consent of everyone involved in the call. It is also possible that the employee must consent to being monitored. From what has been reported, at least some of the surveillance CoStar allegedly performed was done without the knowledge of the employee. This means that CoStar may not have had the employee’s authorization.

From what has been released so far, it does not appear that CoStar broke the law by allegedly monitoring employees without their consent. But the potential is there, especially if more people tell stories about their time working for CoStar.

Disadvantage #2: It’s terrible for employee morale

When employees know they are being closely watched and watched, they feel micromanaged. It can also lead to resentment and mistrust. These negative sentiments mean employees are less likely to go the extra mile for the employer or tell the truth when questioned. Instead, they will always be on guard and care more about protecting themselves than the business.

Alright, but let’s play devil’s advocate for a minute. Companies can choose to foster a culture that sets high expectations for their employees. And if they choose to motivate their employees using a stick rather than a carrot, that’s their prerogative. So what’s wrong with tracking an employee’s time down to the minute or ensuring they’re always professionally dressed, even at home?

There may be nothing wrong with this approach from a legal point of view. But it certainly has its downsides. Assuming the employer is willing to accept any employee issues that might arise from this work philosophy, it can lead to other issues, such as bad publicity.

Disadvantage #3: Bad press

There’s a line of thought that says “all publicity is good publicity” or something like that. So maybe CoStar has that belief and thinks it will lead to higher profits in the long run. But until this story covered CoStar’s culture and work practices, the general public didn’t know CoStar existed.

Today, more and more people are associating, fairly or not, CoStar with spying on employees and a terrible work environment. This will not only make it harder for CoStar to attract the workers it wants, but it could also put CoStar under the public microscope.

Disadvantage #4: Increased control

One of the reporters who published the article on CoStar is actively soliciting current or former CoStar employees to submit stories about their experiences at CoStar. Who knows what else might have happened at CoStar?

Perhaps employee surveillance and toxic work culture are just the tip of the iceberg. Or perhaps regulators and government officials will take a closer look at CoStar’s business dealings. The important point is that if CoStar wants to keep what happened in the company out of the public eye, all of this publicity is unlikely to encourage anyone with information to keep quiet.

Conclusion

People are not robots and they have feelings. Even when they are 100% legal, taking a strict approach to employee management by implementing monitoring policies may not be the best idea. It might give the company what it asks for (scaring employees into working harder), but not what it wants (a more productive workforce).

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