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.