As Wearables Become More Popular, What Is HR’s Responsibility?

By Dinah Brin Feb 16, 2016
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Whether using a fitness device to track employees’ exercise and sleep activity or a badge that captures workers’ body language, moods and movements on the job, employers face potential privacy, labor, and security complaints if they slip up when implementing their wearables policies.

HR technology consulting firm Sierra-Cedar Inc., which considers wearables an emerging enterprise technology, found in survey results released last fall that 10 percent of organizations were already using wearables and another 8 percent were considering doing so. 

Sierra-Cedar measured a 30 percent increase in the number of employers using wearable technology as part of an HR strategy and found that 55 percent of companies using wearables draw on them to improve workforce productivity.

To give a broader perspective on the global demand for wearables, the International Data Corp. (IDC) last year projected that worldwide shipments of these devices, including “smart wristwear” and basic wearables, would reach 173.4 million units by 2019. IDC also forecasts a 37.5 percent five-year average annual growth rate in shipments for the top five smart-wristwear operating systems.

Wearables at Work

In the workplace, companies are using, or experimenting with, wearables in a variety of ways.

Social media startup Buffer, a self-described culture- and transparency-oriented firm whose worldwide employees work remotely from home or other locations, notes on its website that, among other perks, each new hire receives a Jawbone UP device to track his or her exercise levels, steps and sleep activity. Employees’ family members also may receive Jawbone UP fitness trackers.

CEO and co-founder Joel Gascoigne, noting the company’s focus on self-improvement, explained in a Buffer video that use of the devices has sparked conversations among team members.

The Jawbone UP data is joined to a smartphone app and “we can all see each other’s sleep [activity] and then have conversations” about improving sleep, Gascoigne said. 

Each Buffer employee also receives a Kindle Paperwhite with free book access; every time someone orders a book, it goes into an app that his or her colleagues can see, also prompting conversations, managers said in the video.

Boston-based “people analytics” firm Humanyze provides clients with microphone-outfitted smart badges that record workers’ on-the-job movements and interactions, synthesizing the data with the general aim of improving communication, productivity and outcomes. The company helped a Deloitte office in Canada measure whether a redesign had improved employee collaboration, a Canadian Business article noted.

Participation in the Deloitte project was optional and employees appreciated the findings Humanyze arrived at by analyzing data from the badges, according to Stacey Harris, Sierra-Cedar’s vice president of research and analytics. Humanyze’s other clients have included a Boston hospital, European banks, a pharmaceutical company and an information technology firm.

Fitbit announced last year that it had extended the reach of its corporate wellness offering beyond private companies by bringing its technology in compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act’s health care information privacy regulations.

Monitoring the Monitors

While surveillance tools have been in the workplace for a long time, wearables bring a new dimension to employee monitoring.

“The challenge is that they are a bit more invasive,” Harris said. “It’s a little more in our face now than it was previously.”

Cybersecurity and privacy attorney Mike Morgan, who works out of Jones Day’s Los Angeles office, noted that wearable devices are more personal and “have the potential to gather a much broader range of information” than previous surveillance tools. When wearable device data is compiled and analyzed, he said, it “can reveal quite a bit about someone.”

While consumers can choose whether to share information about their location, heart rate or other things, Morgan suggested that they might not fully understand the types and volume of data being gathered about them or the implications of sharing it.

Employers generally sidestep potential legal issues by making the use of workplace wearables optional, according to Harris. 

Best practices, if not already required by state law, call for letting employees know they are being monitored, according to Kate Bischoff, SHRM-SCP, a Minneapolis-based management-side employment attorney with Zelle LLP.

Health-tracking wearables are often associated with employee wellness programs, which companies are adopting at least in part to rein in soaring health care costs. Bischoff noted that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission requires that company wellness programs linked to group health plans be voluntary. (The Americans with Disabilities Act limits employers’ right to inquire about employees’ health but does allow optional, health plan-linked wellness programs.) 

Making wearables optional for workers, however, doesn’t necessarily address security vulnerabilities associated with the technology. Morgan noted that data doesn’t stay on devices but makes its way to the cloud and the app provider. China, citing national security concerns, has banned military personnel from using wearable technology, according to news reports.

The extent of a company’s responsibility to protect sensitive employee data is “not being discussed in great detail,” Harris said. What happens, for instance, if a company is capturing health data on senior executives and a hacker discovers that an exec has a heart problem, she wondered.

“HR technology has such a fantastic opportunity to make workers’ lives better,” Harris said. For example, wearable technology may give workers “more ownership over their own decisions and give them more information to make their own decisions” about such matters as their health, working pace and break schedules, she said. 

But the same data that can be used to help people make better decisions can also be used “to bind people or handcuff them to things,” creating an organizational culture that may not be desirable, according to Harris. 

With GPS-equipped apps and devices, employers can monitor employees’ whereabouts whenever they’re wearing a smartwatch or carrying their smartphone.

“Companies are very aware from a cultural perspective that there’s a creepy line, and they’re kind of dancing around the creepy line,” Harris noted.

Dinah Wisenberg Brin, a freelance writer in Philadelphia, previously worked as a staff reporter for Dow Jones Newswires and the Associated Press.

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