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Biometrics Spread into Workplace

By Allen Smith  4/24/2014
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Biometric methods of identifying and tracking employees are becoming more prevalent in the workplace, raising hopes that they will solve problems such as one employee punching a timecard for a tardy buddy, but also raising issues of employee privacy and religious accommodation.

Hand scans, fingerprints, iris scans, facial recognition and voice recognition technologies all are increasingly being used in the workplace, according to C.R. Wright, an attorney with Fisher & Phillips in Atlanta.

Biometric methods are being used for recording work hours and controlling physical and remote access to buildings and computer systems, as well as for monitoring and tracking employee movement and productivity, he added.

Religious Objections

But there may be religious and privacy concerns about the developing technology.

Wright said the use of biometrics in the workplace “is an emerging issue of interest to employers. Just today we had a client call about an employee who objected to hand scanning based on a religious objection—Revelation, Mark of the Beast.”

According to Chrissie Garretson, a student at Rogers State University, in her paper on biometrics, this objection is based on the following language from the Bible’s Book of Revelation: “[The Beast] causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save that he had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. ... and his number is six hundred, threescore, and six.”

While some religious objections may need to be accommodated, few laws address biometrics in the workplace. Wright said that New York law prohibits fingerprint biometrics unless there is consent and that reasonable accommodation for religion might be required. Title VII requires religious accommodation unless it will pose an undue hardship to a company.

But the extent to which privacy and religious objections to biometrics may be legitimate complaints is a matter that Wright said is up for debate.

If employees resist biometrics in the workplace, Wright said, employers can “possibly terminate employment or take disciplinary action, depending on applicable laws, regulations and employee relations considerations.”

Privacy Concerns

The use of biometrics in the workplace isn’t just an issue in the United States.

In far-flung Malta, the Office of the Information and Data Protection Commissioner noted that employers should opt for biometric systems that provide “a high level of comfort in terms of the privacy requirements. … These systems include those which do not physically record and process the actual image of the biometric feature, such as the fingerprint.”

The office explained that “data is immediately converted into a template containing a unique binary code which represents the characteristics or measurements of the biometric feature.” The binary code can be encrypted and stored separately in the memory of the biometric device, thus segregating it from other personal information conventionally stored in a database for administrative purposes.

The office emphasized that, “In principle, the processing of personal data involving the use of a biometric system is considered by privacy experts to be only justified in places demanding a high level of security and strict identification procedures”—questionable in light of Wright’s observation that the use of biometrics is becoming more common.

With so much uncertainty surrounding biometric methods in the workplace, why use them?

Wright said that biometrics can reduce overtime abuse, such as when a friend clocks in a co-worker. It also can cut down on fraud and the ability to forge documents—“the same reasons why government agencies, banks, tanning beds, amusement parks and other businesses are requiring fingerprint or other biometric identification/authentication,” he added.

But there may be pushback from some employees, and state legislatures increasingly are limiting how employers can use biometrics. If companies want to start or increase use of biometrics, HR professionals “need to be fully informed and keep up with the technology and issues in order to advise management and respond to employee concerns,” Wright concluded.

Allen Smith, J.D., is the manager of workplace law content for SHRM. Follow him @SHRMlegaleditor.

Related Article:
Biometric Technologies Help Manage Employees, SHRM Online Technology, October 2013

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