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Does Use of Wearables Increase HR's Responsibility?

With the use of wearables on the rise, how can HR help protect employees' privacy?

 Wearable technology.Whether they are fitness bracelets that track employees’ sleep and exercise habits or badges that capture people’s movements on the job, wearable devices are becoming increasingly fashionable in enterprise technology.

The number of employers using wearable technology as part of their HR strategies is up 30 percent since 2014, and 55 percent of companies using the devices draw on them to improve workforce productivity, according to a 2015 survey by HR technology consulting firm Sierra-Cedar Inc.

But the popularity of wearables may be growing faster than companies can determine exactly what their role should be in ensuring data security and protecting employee information in the age of “big data.” Companies could face potential privacy, labor and security complaints—or even lawsuits—if they slip up when implementing their wearable-technology policies. And that’s where HR can help, by making sure businesses are creating, and adhering to, appropriate guidelines.

Wearables at Work

At San Francisco-based social media startup Buffer, a self-described culture- and transparency-oriented company whose worldwide employees work remotely from home or other locations, each new hire is issued a Jawbone UP fitness tracker. The devices allow employees to voluntarily monitor their exercise levels, steps and sleep activity. Employees’ family members can also receive the fitness trackers.

Buffer CEO and co-founder Joel Gascoigne says the devices support the company’s focus on employee self-improvement and provide the added benefit of sparking conversations among its 72-person workforce.

Because the Jawbone UP data is linked to a smartphone app, “we can all see each other’s sleep [activity] and then have conversations” about improving it, Gascoigne says.

Boston-based HR analytics firm Humanyze provides clients with microphone-outfitted smart badges that record workers’ on-the-job movements and interactions. The company then synthesizes the data with the general aim of improving communication, productivity and outcomes. For example, the company worked with a Deloitte office in Canada to measure whether a space redesign had improved employee collaboration.

Participation in the Deloitte project was optional. The findings that Humanyze gleaned by analyzing aggregate data from employees’ badges were shared with workers. Humanyze’s other clients have included a Boston hospital, European banks, a pharmaceutical company and an information technology firm.

Last year, fitness-tracking device maker Fitbit announced 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. The move is expected to increase the use of the devices for corporate wellness initiatives.

Monitoring the Monitors

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

“The challenge is that they are a bit more invasive,” according to Stacey Harris, vice president of research and analytics at Sierra-Cedar. “It’s a little more in our face now than it was previously.”

Newer versions of wearable devices are more personal and “have the potential to gather a much broader range of information” than previous surveillance tools, says cybersecurity and privacy attorney Mike Morgan, who works in the Los Angeles office of law firm Jones Day. When wearable-device data is compiled and analyzed, he says, it “can reveal quite a bit about someone.”

That has some employee privacy advocates worried. While wearable technology allows consumers to choose whether to share their location, heart rate or other data, many people might not fully understand the types and volume of information being gathered about them or the implications of sharing it, Morgan says.

Employers generally sidestep potential legal issues by making the use of workplace wearables optional. And some state laws require employers to inform workers if they are being monitored—something that should be a best practice anyway, says Kate Bischoff, SHRM-SCP, a management-side employment attorney with Zelle LLP in Minneapolis.

Health-tracking wearables are often associated with employee wellness programs, which many companies are adopting at least in part in an effort to reduce soaring health care costs. Bischoff notes that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission requires that employee participation in 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. One potential weakness: Rather than staying only on devices, data may make its way to the cloud and the app provider. That possibility has prompted China, citing national security concerns, to ban its military personnel from using wearable technology.

The extent of a company’s responsibility to protect sensitive employee data is “not being discussed in great detail,” Harris says. But the consequences could be significant. What happens, for instance, if a company is capturing health data on senior executives and a hacker discovers that an executive has a serious health condition and chooses to publicize that information?

Pressure to Participate

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

But the flip side is that employee monitoring can contribute to the creation of a Big Brother-type organizational culture. Even when participation is optional, workers may feel pressured to participate, especially if there is an implication that doing so is tied to their performance in any way.

With GPS-equipped apps and devices, employers can now monitor employees’ whereabouts any time they’re wearing a smartwatch or carrying their smartphone. “Companies are very aware from a cultural perspective that there’s a creepy line,” Harris says. For now, though, “they’re kind of dancing around” it, she added.

To stay on the right side of the line, keep your company’s technology policies updated and review them when new enterprise tools are implemented. In addition, make sure you’re very clear with employees that optional participation is just that: No one should feel obligated to tell everyone they work with what’s been keeping them up at night.

Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.


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