Employers Increased Employee Data Collection During Pandemic

Calls grow for workers’ data ‘bill of rights’

By Dave Zielinski December 1, 2020
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​The amount of data that organizations gathered on their employees grew exponentially during the pandemic. Whether employers collected information on workers' personal health and safety, harvested productivity data from remote monitoring tools, or identified how employees collaborate on internal networks, they likely know more now than they ever have about their workforces.

Some experts believe this expanded data collection presents a growing problem, because many companies aren't transparent enough with their workers about why and how such data is gathered or haven't taken the right steps to ensure sensitive information is kept safe.

"Companies need to create end-to-end processes that ensure their decisions around collecting and using data are ethical and transparent," said Chantal Steen, global director of HR advisory services for research and consulting firm Gartner during a session at the firm's recent virtual ReimagineHR Conference. "Very few employees trust their organizations to use data collected about them in the right ways. And that lack of trust and transparency can harm employee performance."

Gartner's research found employees who are treated as data partners––defined as those kept informed about why and how the organization gathers data about them and who are confident that information is protected—are willing to work harder for their companies. Almost 80 percent of survey respondents who feel they're treated as data partners said they're willing to put in extra effort to get the job done, versus 52 percent who don't feel like they are treated as partners.

But Gartner's research also found that less than 50 percent of employees trust their organization with their data and 44 percent don't receive any information regarding the data collected about them.

Increased Analytics Technologies and Practices

More than 90 percent of senior leaders have maintained or increased their use of talent analytics since the COVID-19 outbreak, according to Gartner. These leaders are employing technology systems and software to help gather more data than ever about employee health, remote employees' performance and collaboration, worker sentiment, and self-identification, Steen said.

She recommended three steps HR and talent analytics leaders can take to make ethical decisions about the data they collect and use.

1. Create a clearly defined process that determines who the talent analytics team will partner with on projects.

Steen said consulting with the legal department should be a starting point. Analytics teams need to form diverse partnerships with internal groups to decide how data will be gathered and used. "Consulting with legal is only the front end of understanding the implications of data collection and use," she said. "In the most successful organizations, the analytics team also partners with business unit leaders, with IT and sometimes with outside experts for their points of view on how data should be collected and used ethically."

2. Embed an ethical framework in decision-making.

"When starting to collect new employee data, be very clear about your intent," Steen said. "Why and how will that data be gathered, used and protected? It's not enough just to have conversations about it. An ethical framework must be embedded and operationalized in your processes."

That's important because similar types of data collection might be acceptable to some employees but objectionable to others. For example, workers might be open to employers collecting data on their activities to help make them safer at work. But if that same data is used to monitor who is working late and then used as part of performance reviews or ratings, some employees may object and lose confidence in the organization's data ethics code.

3. Craft a two-way dialogue with employees.

Steen suggested creating an open platform where employees can ask questions about data collection and use. "Employees don't always know how you use data, and others don't trust their organizations in the way that data is used," she said. "Employee trust is built or destroyed in times of extreme disruption like the COVID-19 pandemic. Now is the time to be more transparent with your workforce about your data practices."

Creating an Employee Data Bill of Rights

Some experts believe organizations should go a step further and create an employee data bill of rights. Elisabeth Joyce, vice president and advisory team leader at Gartner, told the audience at the ReimagineHR Conference that just as many businesses now spell out for consumers their data rights, organizations should be equally explicit with their employees about such rights.

"Are employees clear on what data is collected and how it's used and protected, and are those rights explicitly communicated?" Joyce asked. "For the most part, the answer is no. The analytics landscape has accelerated, and organizations need to address the data expectations of employees before those expectations are addressed in the courts or in the media."

To address the problem, Joyce suggested organizations create an employee data bill of rights with four key tenets. Privacy is not listed as a core right on this list, Joyce said, because the bill of rights is intended to balance employee privacy with the legitimate and necessary analytics employers need to collect.

"These employee data rights should go beyond table stakes like adhering to the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation," she said. "They should evaluate those data questions that are currently unregulated."

The four tenets in the bill of rights are:

  • The Right to Purpose. Employees should have the right to expect employers will have a legitimate purpose for using data collected about them. "Employee health certifications around COVID-19 shouldn't be used for benefits determination, for example. [They should be used] only to ensure people are healthy when they return to the workplace," Joyce said.
  • The Right to Minimization. Employees should have a right to expect their employers will only collect the minimum amount of data needed to meet the intended purpose.
  • The Right to Fairness. This is the right for employees to know their data will be used fairly. Here, organizations should consider potential second- and third-order effects from data gathering, Joyce said. Take productivity monitoring of remote workers, for example. Such data might also be used for things like recognizing people for above-and-beyond contributions, which could incentivize burnout, she said.
  • The Right to Awareness. Joyce said this is the crux of creating a good data partnership with employees. "Workers should have the right to know what types of collected data are being used for what purposes and any changes made to that," she said.

Organizations also need to identify any restrictions to sharing information about data collection and use. "Awareness does not mean full transparency," Joyce said. "Companies are not compelled to share everything, but they do need a legitimate reason when they don't share information about data collection or use."

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.

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