Big Brother in Small Business

Speaking as a person, spying on people is degrading and ugly. Being watched is like being accused of something.

Speaking as a business owner, spying on people feels bad, and watching people is really boring and seems very unproductive. Is it necessary?

I just read the New York Times story AT&T to Sell Equipment to Monitor Workplaces.

AT&T plans to introduce a nationwide program today that gives owners of small- and medium-size businesses some of the same tools big security companies offer for monitoring employees, customers and operations from remote locations.

Under AT&T’s Remote Monitor program, a business owner could install adjustable cameras, door sensors and other gadgets at up to five different company locations across the country. Using a Java-enabled mobile device or a personal computer connected to the Internet, the owner would be able to view any of the images in real time, control room lighting and track equipment temperatures remotely.

Is this about people working at home? Or is it about general workplace monitoring? Hours worked, things said, behavior? Neither of these generates pleasant images. The Times story isn’t very reassuring:

It is Big Brother, but in this day and age, you need these type of tools for theft protection, weeding out false accident claims and other risks, said Beaux Roby, owner of a chain of five Mamas Café restaurants and two banquet halls in Texas. … You have fraudulent claims from customers that trip and fall and things like that, he said. Aside from helping to verify insurance claims, the system can detect break-ins, alert an owner if a boiler breaks down and monitor employees who are just sitting around on the clock not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, Mr. Roby said. In one instance, he said, a worker seen operating a meat slicer without wearing protective gloves was reprimanded.

On the one hand, as a business owner with 40 employees, I understand the motivation. In our company our controller, affectionately called The Voice of Doom, has a repertoire of workplace lawsuit stories scarier than Freddy Kruger on Elm Street. And our CPA warned us, when we passed the 25-employee mark, that getting to 50 is really hard.

On the other hand, in a business with 40 employees the owners work in the company along with everybody else, and the atmosphere, the community, the company culture matters a whole lot. 1984-movie-bb_a1I’ve secretly admitted for years that part of my motivation for building the company was having somewhere to go, five days a week, where I liked to be. How can we feel like a team when some of us are big brother watching and others are being watched? Is what we gain in peace of mind, theoretically, worth what we lose in attitude and atmosphere?  

We don’t monitor Internet usage. We don’t save screens. Although we warn our employees that email isn’t private — we wish it were, but it isn’t, courts have made that clear — we don’t snoop on emails either. We don’t have security cameras, and we don’t snoop on phone calls, and we don’t have time clocks for punching in and out. 

We try to remind employees that email isn’t private, whether we like it or not. Courts drag email into lawsuits all the time. We don’t look, but somebody else might, someday. So we don’t snoop, but we do worry.

My tech support manager asked me once whether I wanted to use software to monitor employees’ Internet usage. He didn’t recommend it but felt he should at least ask. At the time we were having bandwidth problems related to growth pains, and Napster was an issue. We didn’t do it. We talked about the problem with employees, and paid for some broadband Internet connections at some homes, and bought more bandwidth. 

Are we being naive?

* * * * *

Tim Berry, Entrepreneur and Founder of Palo Alto Software, and Borland International About the Author: Tim Berry is president and founder of Palo Alto Software, founder of, and co-founder of Borland International. He is also the author of books and software on business planning including Business Plan Pro and Hurdle: the Book on Business Planning; and a Stanford MBA. His main blogs are Planning, Startups, Stories and Up and Running.


Tim Berry Tim Berry is Founder and Chairman of Palo Alto Software, Founder of Bplans, Co-Founder of Borland International, Stanford MBA, and co-founder of Have Presence. He is the author of several books and thousands of articles on business planning, small business, social media and startup business.

20 Reactions
  1. I don’t think you’re wrong or naive. I don’t think I would ever work for a company that snooped on it’s employees as a habit. Using pattern recognition software, bandwidth limiters and email snooping software is tantamount to standing over my shoulder. As a consultant and an owner of a small independent business I recognize the need to keep tabs. But not trusting people, isn’t the way to get where you want to be.

    Communicating clearly the trust you have in your employees, the hard work and dedication you require from your employees and stressing your willingness to be accommodating with issues on an individual basis is important. These things should be routinely reiterated. People’s minds wander and they lose track of their ethical responsibilities when qualms or issues come up in the workplace. Being efficiently proactive in resolving these issues is probably the best way to prevent them.


  2. I have to agree with the above comment here. I think the software, cameras, monitors, etc. are ridiculous. If you have that little faith in employees, why are they working for you? And if the work is getting done, regardless of is taking place in between, why are you concerned?

    I would feel very, very violated if this were happening to me. And I would not want to work for – or go to work at – a place that has these items in place. We are all human. We all become distracted. We all need a few moments to “break” and interact with one another at work. If this is a big “no-no” why not chain employees to their desk? Not all of us are conducting ourselves as criminals. And being treated like one isn’t enjoyable.

  3. I think the focus of the NY Times story was on the “big brother” aspect of the system, but there are many small businesses that have multiple locations that such a system could provide some capability related to security that would greatly benefit employees — perhaps even save lives. Security cameras are ubiquitous and, for me, unsettling. However, I know they save lives and solve crimes every day. While you (and I) may run companies that are white-collar and office-bound and progressive in the way we treat everyone as a team member worthy of respect and trust, I do recognize there are businesses that have security and control challenges who need affordable means to manage such challenges.

  4. I have to agree with Chris. If your staff is productive with no major problems, then why do you need to watch them? The only way I would change my opinion is if you are having a theft problem within your staff.

  5. Technology like this will encourage employees to retaliate with unethical behavior. Take the timet correctly train a staff member for his or her position. Then hand them the responsibility for the job and they will do it.

  6. It’s a hard truth that most if not all employees spend time shopping online, browsing info sites or sending personal emails. I agree with the above comments that the only real way to keep this in check is to educate your team. This will not stop it from occurring but can dramatically reduce their time online. The alternative to browsing online is everyone standing in the halls chit chatting which then reduces other employees productivity. I do not see online surfing as a bad thing unless you notice they are not getting their work done and I would only resort to snooping if I had complaints of obscene websites or other sites that can hurt the company or other employees.

  7. Oh, that’s a tough one. I’ve worked for a lot of small businesses in my life. Some played big brother, some gave total freedom. There are pros and cons.

    Ultimately, I have a lot more tolerance for these measures in retail locations. Theft, protection against lawsuits, etc… I get that. When you have non-employees coming in and out all the time, or when you have a retail business with high employee turn-over, you DO need to have some protections in place for yourself.

    But when it comes to the actual office? The place where the same people come day in day out? That’s a management issue. It’s about hiring people you trust and in fostering a good work environment.

    I currently work for a super small business (2 full time, 2 part time) where we all work remotely from home. There’s absolutely NO oversight. I could spend my days shopping ebay or going to the gym.

    Of course if I did that, I wouldn’t be getting my work done. Ultimately, my boss hired me because he knows I’m a hard worker and he’s motivated me by giving me enough personal investment in the business that I go out of my way to give 110%. He treats me like gold and I’m about as loyal an employee as you can get.

    I realize that the larger a company becomes, the harder it is to work that way, but I can’t help but think the businesses who foster environments that don’t NEED that technology are the ones that come out ahead in the long run.

  8. I have to agree with Chris. If your staff is productive with no major problems, then why do you need to watch them? The only way I would change my opinion is if you are having a theft problem within your staff.

  9. Even hiring practices today present a bit of a dilemma, although I’m not sure employers view it that way.

    What do I mean? Just this: think about the background checks that employers do routinely before hiring today. Pre-employment drug tests are routine these days. Most employers check public records such as criminal records and driving history. Some employers look at your credit rating. Some require fingerprinting. Some have extensive background checks done via private detectives (not uncommon for executive level positions in big corporations).

    Some require skills tests. Some go further and require personality assessments (again, not uncommon at the executive level).

    In some companies hiring an entry-level person takes months and a battery of tests. And we wonder why we can’t find qualified help?

    I can remember back in my corporate days over 10 years ago now, when our CEO was being insistent on first requiring pre-employment drug tests. For a time I resisted them — not because I condone drug usage — I do not. It’s just that they struck me as invasive.

    Finally, as drug testing became the norm, I gave in and implemented them, my thought being that by then most of our competitors were requiring them and if we did not, we might just become a haven for drug users. And after we had a near fatal accident involving an employee under the influence — that really decided me because it became a matter of safety. Of course, when drug tests were implemented we did it for pre-employment only, not for random testing or other such stuff which can add extra feelings of big bother’s watchful eye over you.

    Subsequently, I drew the line when the next CEO came along and wanted to implement handwriting analysis for pre-hires (no kidding!). That one I flatly refused to implement, because there was no scientific basis for handwriting analysis predicting on the job performance.

    By that time, I was totally exasperated and torn by the concept of pre-employment evaluations. Where do you draw the line at pre-employment testing? Is no part of our souls or psyches to be hidden from the employer’s inquiring eye? Are we even to be subjected to junk science like handwriting analysis? What’s next, having our horoscopes checked

    I have to confess in my corporate days to using every one of the pre-employment tests I mentioned above in certain situations (with the exception of handwriting analyses and horoscopes). One part of me sees the logic and the importance of protecting the employer. But I always felt vaguely unsettled by it all.

    Does anyone else have such mixed feelings about pre-employment testing? Or does such testing serve an important purpose that justifies it?

  10. Working with people requires trust and respect on both sides. Results have to be monitored closely, becasue that’s what matters for any business.

    I applaud you for NOT MONITORING in a time, when governments all over the planet try to get a hold of as much data as they can. A society or company that is based on over-controlling is doomed. –John

  11. David B. Bohl at


    Found your post as a fellow blogger in Liz Fuller’s Carnival of Small Business Issues.

    I think I am being naive in my optimism. I believe that integrity is a huge part of life, and that its basis lies in all of us doing the right thing even though nobody’s watching. My true naiveite lies in believing that I can surround myself with people who feel the same way AND that I won’t be adversely affected by those who don’t.

    Great post.


  12. Tim,

    I see a bit of both sides of this issue or situation. On the one hand as a prior employee in corporate America for many years, I didn’t like having someone standing over my shoulder watching every thing I did. However, I did know of some other business associates who would sit on their computers internet surfing or on the phone with friends, while I would need to do more work and make less money. Most people will show themselves sooner or later. If the projects you assign them are not getting done, there has to be a reason and then it may be time to “shadow” those people a bit more.
    I do believe that you can surround yourself with people with integrity, however, they are hard to find…so once you find a person who cares more about doing a good job than by receiving a paycheck, keep them!

  13. Charles H. Green, Trusted Advisor Associates

    Years ago I did some consulting for a convenience store chain. They had hired us to find a profile of high-tenure store managers, because they were suffering a 150% turnover rate.

    As we explored the situation, we learned that they routinely (about monthly) gave lie detector tests to all store managers. What happened was that, after about 6 months, the average store manager figured out two things:
    a. a whole lot of people must be trying to rip off the company, and
    b. some of them must be getting away with it.

    So, they engaged in what was charmingly called “defalcation.”

    Basically, people behave up to (or down to) the expectations management has of them. You empower what you fear.

    Big Brother begets the need for Big Brother.

  14. Thanks all, I appreciate how much the comments added to my original post. It seems to me like most of us are not yet ready for big brother, leaning the other direction, and hoping that works.


  15. The Voice of Doom mentioned in this article is similar to the feeling we have when working with D&B. When it is time to build business credit there is no way around it.

    We will consider becoming the big brother.


    Ilya Bodner
    Initial Underwriting Group
    Small Business Owner

  16. I totally agree with Josh Hardley. Online Surfing shouldnt be a problem