There has been explosive growth in the big data applications in recent past and one such area is Workforce Analytics. While there are many legitimate & absolutely essential analytics that needs to be done by any company on its employees, there are some grey areas when it comes to some specific applications like Sentiment Analysis of Employees. Large corporate entities which are having operations around the world, have built applications so that they can track sentiment of employees & discover any concerns or issues which not formally brought forward to HR dept. While this may have noble stated purpose , but in order to do so ; what employers does is ; to track employees’ personal content on chat , emails, social media platforms to spot any red-flags and then lines become blurred as to if this is an ethical way to do so ? What about freedom of expression of an employee? Does a person have his “personal space” which is beyond his office hours? Can anything that an employee says outside of office on his personal twitter handle be held against him as policy violation? Does it conflict with “employment at will” concept? This article will explore these issues from both the aspects in a balanced perspective & will try to ethically contextualize the need of workforce analytics.
“We don’t want it but we need it”
Most large corporates in America has some or other applications that track what their employees say about their company in their personal space. This is primarily done to retain talent before they leave company  by monitoring personal social media content . For example companies monitor what their employees are saying on Facebook, twitter & more importantly on internal chats & other social media platforms like LinkedIn, Glass-Door, Job Forums etc. The information shared by employees on such platform can be crucial to any company, not just because it may contain some sensitive information but also more generally because any new prospective hire is likely to go through such social media platform to understand how the new company culture is and most likely based his decision on that as per this info in exact same way as employers scan social media content of their job applicants . If most of current or ex-employees have complaints then that can be deterrent for new hires and a serious challenge for HR. In order to contain a spillover of negative image of company on social media, it’s almost necessary for corporates to engage in an “image control” exercise which begins with tracking what their people are doing on social media & then control it by pro-actively retaining the talent before they leave .
There is another more nuanced but far more serious aspect to do so , which is to spot the violation of stated HR or other policies within the large corporates before it is too late. Most companies which work across the globe has the near impossible challenge of monitoring the implementation of its stated policies since in each country a regional manager or VP is essentially at a virtual island with little direct oversight over day-day operations. For example HQ may have a policy of no racial bias or discrimination across the globe, however someone in some local geography may be clandestinely practicing it. This in all fairness may not have approval of its corporate leadership and they may even not be aware of it but if such an event is leaked to the media then the whole company can suffer a real loss. This scenario is further complicated when the corporate works in a franchise model.
Take a recent example of what happened in Australia at Apple store where a racial incident took place which forced Apple to apologize . It can be logically assumed that whatever happened may not have happened for the first time and more significantly had some approval from local manager while Apple HQ itself may be totally unaware of it. Apple HQ may not condone racism and immediately recanted it but it’s an example of how fast such a small story can damage its brand reputation worldwide. Having a workforce sentiment analytics systems can arguably bring such incidence to notice of corporate HQ before they become public. (Assuming it was happening for a while & some employees had expressed their views about it). Similarly some regional McDonald’s franchise can be violating their hygiene policy which if be discovered in time (had some of the employees have been expressing it)  avoid further issues.. It’s been said that in VW scandal the Executive leadership was unaware of what was happening as it was known only to specific team of engineers . If this was ever done they must have discussed it over some platform ; if not external then internal chats , emails etc. and so theoretically possible to identify it before the scandal blew over.
Sentiment Analytics of Workforce can be a tool to dig deeper into the problem. It may not identify the problem or solve it but gives a smoke sign for executive leadership to investigate more. While it is more focused towards saving the image of company from something sinister, which of course has a real impact on company’s sales & stock price if it ever comes out; the methods used are questionable.
Office space vs. Personal Space
The way most of employees work now , in any industry ; it is so different from earlier model of 9-6 that it begs to ask question; exactly when is employee working and when is not working? Flexible work hours or even need of the job demands employee remains connected to official emails , chats or official resources 24 by 7 . In such a world it becomes hard to split the personal individual life from the official persona.
As described above while there may have been something sinister going on in any company, the method to find it out is to track activities of ALL employees in their personal space and if they are speaking anything that may of interest to generate a red flag. While some companies also do this to spot any deliberate leakage of sensitive patent material or release information or corporate espionage , the modus operando essentially means every single employee always remains under the watchdog of its corporate servers and whatever they may do , may get noticed. There have been so many instances of employees being terminated recently for their social media posts on Facebook & twitter. 
Is it ethical for companies to dictate what employees can or cannot say on their personal twitter handle? While one ponders over that question , the reality is many companies have clearly dictated terms over what their employees can or cannot say on social media platforms which are really bizarre. Does it infringe personal freedom ? Are employees slaves of their companies? Is there such a thing anymore as being “off duty”? If an employee expresses his personal opinion about his boss and gets fired from company for it, does it violate his first amendment rights? Since there are no federal regulation related to this and it’s not being challenged constitutionally it is hard to answer these questions. There have been some conflicting lower court judgments on this as at some cases court uphold right of personal space like saying obscene things to boss on Facebook but at some other cases uphold the termination.
“There is no such thing as free lunch”
While we debate this issues we can’t ignore the fact that just as most citizens are not terrorists, there are few who are and hence all are subjected to surveillance & restrictions. Similarly it would disingenuous to say that no employees ever done harm to his company; from Intel to Microsoft corporate espionage has a long history and so his incidences of policy violations like racism which are serious threats to any company in today’s volatile world. While rights advocate would be justified in blaming companies for their overreach & violation of fundamental liberties, there is also a reality that a single social media post about some remote incident can drown whole company for none of its fault (like Apple incident) and having bad social media image will hurt its growth prospectus. So corporates may also be within their rights to do what they would like to call as self-preservation instincts & a basic need. The ethical questions will perhaps remain unanswered until we satisfactorily address this need part of corporates.