Barclays backtracks in privacy row over worker surveillance project

Barclays Bank has withdrawn a system that monitored employees’ computers, tracking individual working patterns and how much time each day was spent on breaks. Details of the pilot project came to light after a Barclays whistle blower reported it to a newspaper.

The provider of the software to Barclays, Sapience says that its system tracks the computer activity of workers, including times when an employee goes offline. Initially the results of the monitoring were supplied to Barclays team managers in a collective and anonymised form. However, shortly before the whistle blower chose to break cover, it seems Barclays allowed managers to see the data relating to individuals.

The scheme has sparked a debate between employers and worker representative groups about the right to privacy at work.

Barclays responded to the story by stating that the motivation behind the project was to enhance both well-being and productivity. In particular, where a member of staff may be working too hard.

The TUC viewed the project somewhat differently, taking to social media to describe the action of the international bank as ‘Big Brother’ tactics that showed a disregard to hard working staff.   

What are the rules about staff surveillance in the workplace?

Recording the patterns of workplace staff involves the processing of personal data – and therefore is protected under the Data Protection Act. The Act states that data should be used fairly, lawfully and transparently. It should be kept for no longer than necessary and be collected for a specified purpose.

This incident is less about whether Barclays breached any laws on data protection and more about trust between an employer and employee. In relation to employee monitoring, the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) goes so far as to advise employers of the potential negative effect of time and motion studies and whether less intrusive alternatives exist.

From a legal point of view, if the data gathered during any period of monitoring was to be used as evidence in any disciplinary action, then the likelihood of that should be made clear in the employer’s written policy or an employment tribunal may find the employer’s actions unfair.

In a broader context, there is a point here about not letting computers inform the actions of line managers where it is not necessary. Surveillance is not a replacement for good people management. For example, a quiet word regarding productivity / time away from a computer may be all that’s needed to bring an otherwise good employee back within the tolerances of breaks during the working day.

If you would like any advice relating to HR or employment law, contact Downs Solicitors to see how we can help.

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