Why Google Glass Could Shatter Workplace Policies

By Steve Bates Nov 19, 2013

It’s​​ not even on sale to the public. Yet, Google Glass—and sophisticated wearable technology like it—has the potential to cause significant disruption in the workplace, experts say.

A lightweight band worn like regular glasses that features a miniature display in the user’s field of vision, Google Glass can be operated by voice command. The wearer can record a video or a still photo, and through an Internet connetion display a GPS map and find out how long the Brooklyn Bridge is (5,988 feet). A Google promotional video shows skydivers and other users sharing exciting experiences in real time.

However, Glass is raising concerns about individual privacy and the potential to capture and misuse sensitive business data.

For HR, “It’s still the Wild Wild West where wearable technology is concerned,” said Sharlyn Lauby, an HR consultant and the author of the HR Bartender blog.

When users are recording video and audio, a red light appears on Google Glass. In theory, the light serves as notification that users are recording whatever they see and hear. “But even when it’s on, are you getting people’s consent?” asks John Sileo, a speaker on privacy issues and CEO of The Sileo Group.

“There’s a lot of spy stuff going on” with the technology.

Google Glass is part of a wave in which smart devices with search and recording functions are becoming smaller, cheaper and easier to hide, challenging employers to keep up with the implications.

Yesterday’s science fiction is tomorrow’s must-have workplace device.

“Glass is not a fad,” said Amy Webb, CEO of Webbmedia Group, a digital strategy agency. “We know it’s coming.”

Though their uses are not always apparent at first, many innovations that appeared in recent years have become essential items in HR’s toolbox. Raise your hand if, at the dawn of the social media age, you foresaw how LinkedIn would revolutionize recruiting and hiring.

Glass, the New Spyware?

Surgeons and others in the field of medicine are already recognizing the benefits of using Google Glass—though there could be issues under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, says Eric B. Meyer, a partner in the labor and employment group of the law firm Dilworth Paxson. In some organizations, Glass could help by recording meetings and facilitating employee training.

Among the downsides: Sileo says that Glass and similar devices can allow a user to walk through an office, discover corporate secrets and “stand behind you and record your pin number and your credit card number.”

Some experts say that HR needs to start changing policies and communicating with workers about new devices.

“I can’t think of a single industry in which Google Glass won’t have a significant impact,” said Webb. “I don’t think social media policies are adequate” for regulating use of wearable technology in the workplace. “You will need a separate policy on wearables.”

Said Lauby: “You need to educate people about what these new things are and privacy options. It can be a win-win.”

Still, the technology might add to the burden that companies face in litigation, Meyer said. “In sexual harassment or discrimination cases, I would imagine the video would be admissible in court.” And he suggested that employees’ use of Glass after working hours could raise the same Fair Labor Standards Act issues as employees using cellphones when off the clock.

A Google spokesperson declined to be interviewed for this article, saying in an e-mail that “Glass is still in its early days.” However, in response to a May 2013 letter from congressional leaders, the company said that “protecting the security and privacy of our users is one of our top priorities.” It added that all files stored on Glass can be deleted by users—limiting the benefit to those who would steal the devices.

Glass May be Banned

Some businesses—including casinos, theaters, and even restaurants and bars—have said customers cannot use Google Glass. Meyer predicted that some companies will prohibit employees from using the device.

Experts say that Google won’t be able to prevent users from altering Glass and similar devices to make them less detectable and more of a threat to security—particularly if supplemented by facial recognition software.

By using facial recognition software, ne’er-do-wells can capture an image of you through Glass and use a database to identify you. Add that to the information Glass already captures, experts surmise, and thieves can profile you, find out when to rob your house, steal your identity, or worse. Google has told Congress it won’t develop ways for crooks to pursue such activities, but third-party app developers and hackers may figure out how to get around Google’s roadblocks.

Meanwhile, the technology keeps advancing. A police department in the Washington, D.C., suburbs is outfitting officers with barely visible cameras that attach to sunglasses.

Smartwatches (smartphones worn on wrists) are already on the market. A Google subsidiary is developing a temporary electronic skin “tattoo” or patch that will stick to the user’s throat and allow voice activation of electronic devices.

Webb said that Glass should prompt HR to upgrade its relationship with IT and the C-suite. “This is a good opportunity for HR to assert itself” by becoming more tech-savvy and advising business leaders how the organization should react to tech developments.

Organizations that develop a process to manage new technology will have a competitive advantage, said Sileo. “It always comes down to a human-training issue.”

“Technology will bring some positive impacts into the workplace,” observed Lauby. “We need to find a balance.”

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.​​


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