The BigBrotherAward 2009 in the “Workplace” category goes to farm machines manufacturer Claas Landmaschinen (internationally known as Claas Group) as a representative for all those consumed by the delusion that you will get productive and motivated staff if you subject them to comprehensive monitoring and make their performance measurable by numbers.
How, do you believe, will staff behave if they are not constantly under strict surveillance? Are they all a bunch of deadbeats, stealing from their employer and boosting their income by selling company secrets? Quite a number of big German companies who made the headlines in the past year for disregard of their employees' personality rights seem to look at people in exactly this distrustful way. The German railway, Deutsche Bahn, tries to pass off dragnet investigation, down to its lowest ranks, as an anti-corruption measure. The German postal services, Deutsche Post, and the surveillance discounter Lidl take their staff’s wellbeing to heart so much that they decide to keep their own medical records on them. And the Deutsche Telekom, as we now know, got its BigBrotherAward perhaps a little prematurely last year – as their mass screening of bank accounts of employees and their relatives hadn't yet come to light at that time.
The conviction that nobody would do any work if they weren't monitored is apparently very widespread. But a study made in 2005 at the University of Bonn proves the exact opposite: Most people work more than they would have to – unless they are monitored at work. Then motivation and achievement go down the drain. Because excessive monitoring will be interpreted as mistrust and soon will demotivate even the most loyal staff member.
And it’s not just the biggies, a lot of smaller companies also appear to be governed by mistrust. The cases that we are aware of only mark the tip of the iceberg. A few examples:
The drugstore chain Müller does not want to be outdone when it comes to caring for the health of its employees. Since the management, for reasons of doctor-patient confidentiality, unfortunately have no access to their employees’ medical records, they just set up their own files. And who will be the best informant? You guessed it: the patient himself, naturally. When the employee returns, having overcome his illness, the personnel office will receive him for a so-called “returnee interview”. For fear of losing their jobs, hardly anybody will refuse to show up for such exploration of personal affairs disguised as well-meaning care.
Public authorities want to see that their employees are healthy as well – and they especially don't want their employees to suffer from psychic ailments. In order to keep their ranks in good health, the district council of Schleswig-Flensburg applied the lever at a point where they can still make an active choice: the applicant process. During their job interviews, rather a kind of medical anamnesis, they demanded wide-ranging information about the applicants’ medical condition, emotional state and psychological well-being. Applicants were also required to sign a blanket waiver of doctor-patient confidentiality. The respective questionnaire, which also contained a section “fear of certain situations or places”, had to be withdrawn after outraged protests by the Data Protection Commissioner of the state of Schleswig-Holstein.
Another public body, the University of Kassel (in Germany, most universities are run by the state and therefore operate under public sector rules), holds a view that apparently becomes more and more acceptable by sheer habit: namely that an employer can make employees’ e-mails accessible by superiors – without informing the persons concerned or even adhering to employee co-determination laws, and arbitrarily, without specific cause. Really abhorrent in this case is the university's legal assessment of its approach: Aspects of data protection law were simply not taken into account.
More thorough, in a sense, was the Cologne-based insurance company HDI Gerling: They not only installed the technical paraphernalia for giving senior staff unlimited access, but also combed through the e-mails of their employees centrally. The purpose was to check whether anybody had had contacts with journalists in order to plug – unsuccessfully, by the way – possible information leaks.
This kind of institutionalised mistrust found in medium-sized companies differs little from that of the big ones – at most, the difference is how absurdly unprofessional the excuses are, as in the case of the bakery Sehne in the Swabian town of Ehningen. One might be tempted to laugh at the allegation that they positively had to install hidden video cameras in the staff locker room because it also served as the accounts office – if it were still possible to laugh about anything of that kind. Could this multiple room usage be just a specific form of the proverbial Swabian thriftiness? And how serious can a company actually take itself if it keeps posing as the loving-and-caring family business but at the same time is consumed by mistrust of its employees and follows them even into the changing room cubicle like a jealous peeping tom?
Now, may I ask you, did you repay the bank loan for your new kitchen? Oh, you think that that has nothing to do with me? Some employers think differently – and would rather not employ you if you are in debt. Because debts make you prone to taking bribes and selling information, to moonlighting and stealing from your employer, or even to asking for a pay rise. At least the tat-vendor KiK Textilien must have thought so when they decided to have all their employees checked for their financial status by the credit agency CreditReform every three months. The ultimate kick for the adventurous worker: no job when in debt, without a job no income, without income no way out of debt.
A country that has such employers also needs an employers' lawyer like Helmut Naujoks. Not every employer manages by himself to put so much pressure on objectionable employees through espionage, eavesdropping, mobbing and slander that they would be unnerved enough to leave the company. This requires a specialist: one who boasts in his seminars that he even made a complete works council of fifteen step down. A wide trail of traumatised employees whose health has been wrecked runs in the wake of this dubious service provider like a treacherous oil slick.
And some trends seem just a little strange. For instance: Have you ever made the journey to buy cigarettes by harvesting machine? You’d better not, for the threshers made by Claas Landmaschinen are equipped with a satellite-based tracking system. Through this, your boss follows you constantly via his Google Earth map on his monitor and registers every time you have a break (woah now, have you been peeing in the wheat?!), every uneven lane you make (still soused from yesterday's party, are you?) or every ineffecient route you take (again confusing the wheat patch with the corn field, right?). Now, one might be willing to assume that there were sensible, harvest-related reasons for such digital dog leashes. But no – somewhat coyly, the manufacturers advertise only one highlighted aspect of these surveillance practices on their website: They want to make you, “the good driver just that little bit better”. Honi soit qui mal y pense.
For this combination of obsession with control, total ignorance of personality rights, and the delusion that one could be most efficient by only employing slaves, the company well deserves the BigBrotherAward – as a representative, however, for all the aspirants that have been mentioned.
Our heartiest congratulations, Mr Claas. Your way here was very straight.