Trial by MP3 – SmartPhone Surveillance in the Workplace


Once again in the UK, football fans have shamed themselves with racist and sexist taunts. They were caught by others who recorded them on smart phones. What does this instant access to recording devices mean for bullying and bad behaviour in the workplace?

Like most people, I found the smartphone footage of football fans chanting at a black man in Paris depressing to say the least. Last week I saw footage from the stands of football fans shouting horrendous sexist abuse at Eva Carneiro, a doctor for the Chelsea team. As HR practitioners and thinkers we understand how people behave differently in groups and, although I baulk slightly at the standard defence of “these people are not football fans” I do get that putting a group of men together who have all been drinking will often lead to behaviour that society wouldn’t be particularly proud of. What is interesting for me here is not the group behaviour but the fact that culprits clearly thought they were safe in behaving this way, miles from home and anybody who knew them or else hidden in a mass of other people at a football ground. They weren’t safe, they were being recorded, and they almost certainly weren’t aware.

The football clubs who commented on the behaviour were initially cautious about believing that the behaviour had actually taken place. There may have been suggestions for a long time about bad behaviour of this type (particularly sexist abuse being thrown from the stands at female officials) but nobody had any real evidence. Well they have now. Cautious defences quickly became explicit apologies and promises that action would be taken.

I know from practitioner groups and online forums that the issue of covert recordings in the workplace is being raised more and more often. It’s not surprising when you consider the number of devices that we have with us at work (or even with us all the time) that can covertly capture high quality audio and, in some cases, video recordings at the discrete touch of a button. Why would I go to all the trouble of submitting a written grievance against the way my boss shouts at me, only to end up in a “it’s your word against his” type of situation? Why not just press record on my iPhone as I see him approaching and let him hang himself by creating a recording of his behaviour?

Similarly, we know from the NHS, wider care sector and increasingly financial services and banks that whistleblowing is still an area in which we have work to do. There still seem to be tensions between an individual’s own integrity and fear of victimisation or repercussions. Won’t it be far easier to simply record a video of the behaviour, broken equipment, poor care etc. and email it (anonymously of course) to the BBC or even straight to YouTube?

As we know, HR is much more than disciplinary, grievance and whistleblowing procedures but they still form an important core both of what we are about and, crucially, the things that managers in the business line really value. Are we geared up to deal with a new world in which written statements and disciplinary investigation notes are accompanied, or even replaced, by audio and video files?

When this does happen in your function (because it will) how will you respond to it? Will your focus be on the fact that we really shouldn’t be covertly recording each other or on the fact that we have tangible evidence of poor behaviour. Beyond that, how do we handle complaints that the recording only captures the accused employees emotional response, not the complainants provocation and abuse that preceded it?

What is clear is that the genie can’t be put back in the lamp and we now know that every meeting, presentation, or even private conversation we have may be being recorded. As we continue our conversation in the HR profession about ‘authenticity’ in the workpalce does smart phone surveillance enable that by exposing poor conduct or threaten it by creating an atmosphere in which people will only say things that are ‘organisationally correct’ rather than what they really think?

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