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Companies are collecting more data on employees, and not at all confident they are doing it responsibly

Key Points
  • A majority of senior business leaders say they are not 'highly confident' that they can collect and analyze employee data in a responsible way, according to a survey released by Accenture at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
  • Just about half of business leaders say they will use workplace data as they see fit, with no additional responsibility measures.
  • Executives worry even more than employees that office data collection by intelligence machines will lead to the devaluation of human work.
Eighty-six percent of workers say that their pay and performance review should be based on work with intelligent machines, according to an Accenture survey released at Davos. But 59 percent also worry that analysis of personal workplace data will devalue their jobs.
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Companies are collecting an increasing amount of data on their employees, but that does not mean they are confident in their ability to mine the data responsibly. That's the disconcerting result from a survey conducted by Accenture and released at this week's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

More than two-thirds (70%) of business leaders globally said they are "not very confident" that they are using new sources of workplace data in a "highly responsible" way. But that is not going to stop them.

Just about half of the C-suite executives (49%) say they will use the workplace data as they see fit, with no additional responsibility measures; only 31 percent say employee concerns are holding them back, according to the Accenture survey.

"There is a lot of risk for companies and employees, and for society," said Ellyn Shook, Accenture's chief leadership and human resources officer. "If you are not very confident, you are in trouble," Shook said. She said that companies that proceed without well-constructed policies on use of employee data — what she calls "workforce DNA" — and without the input of employee groups will lose trust and revenue potential rather than gain business opportunities. It is an opportunity that Accenture estimates at more than $6 trillion globally — $3 trillion in the United States alone. "There are massive, untapped sources of workforce data," she said.

Privacy experts worry that the results from the Accenture survey indicate that businesses do not act with prudence.

"Our concern continues to be that the speed with which new technologies are being introduced in the workplace is blurring the boundaries between employees and employers," said Joseph Jerome, policy counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology. "It's good to see so many business leaders are aware of — and concerned about — this situation, but the report pretty clearly suggests that enterprise needs to drive business efficiencies through the collection and exploitation of data will win out over generalized ethical concerns."

A wide gap remains between employers and employees

The Accenture survey reveals several unresolved tensions between employers and employees over use of workforce data.

Seventy percent of employees say they will only be willing to let employers collect their data if the employer communicates how data will be used (and what benefits employees may receive as a result of sharing data) if the employer communicates its plans transparently. Yet in the United States, there are only two states, Delaware and Connecticut, where there is a law overseeing workplace collection of data.

  • Only 32 percent of employees say they have consented to employer use of workplace data, and 56 percent of business leaders say their companies do not ask for consent.
  • Only 29 percent of business leaders say they have co-created workplace data policies with workers, but another 33 percent say they do plan to do so in the future.

"A thoughtful legislative solution isn't on the immediate horizon, but companies must be much more transparent with their employees, even when not required by the law," Jerome said.

"In the absence of regulation, companies are starting to think about the right ways to use employee data. Trust is the most significant currency in the digital age with consumers and employees," Shook said. "It's essential that companies start to think about how to use the data responsibly and it is no longer a choice. This isn't an HR issue. It is a business issue when trust becomes the biggest lever in the financial equation."

Employees need to learn how to negotiate access to data

The Center for Democracy & Technology has been worried for years about specific employee data vulnerabilities, such as bring-your-own-device policies and employer wellness programs. Jerome said the Accenture study shows that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to address basic data-protection issues as well as the ethical and surveillance implications of large-scale employer data collection.

Companies already use email and calendar data to monitor employees, and Shook said new technologies will push these efforts into even more fraught territory. "If you think of how industries and companies are now using wearables and facial recognition and voice recognition ... able to access data beyond the walls of companies ... there are so many new sources of data, it will either be a goldmine or minefield."

If I learned a company wasn't responsibly handling data, I would ...

Action %
Refuse to give permission for data (as employee)63
Not buy stock (as an investor)56
Not apply for a job55
Be less engaged (as an employee)53
Stop buying from the company (as a customer)52
Consider leaving (as an employee)51

The survey findings highlight a disconnect between employers and employees over reciprocal data-sharing relationships.

  • Less than a quarter of companies indicated to Accenture that they offer any kind of benefits to employees in exchange for data.
  • An overwhelming 86 percent of employees say their pay and performance review should be based on work with intelligent machines.
  • Three in 4 business leaders (75%) worry workforce data will turn human workers into commodities — that's significantly higher than the 59 percent of employees who expressed that fear.

"It hasn't been top of mind with U.S. employees, but it is becoming a bigger issue," Shook said.

As one example, she said if an employee consents to use a Fitbit, they should get a credit on health-care benefits.

Accenture collects data on its employees for purposes including analyzing the market value of individual skills and capabilities, but it allows employees to challenge the data and ask for corrections or even deletions. That data can include recent use of and certifications for important workplace technologies. "Knowing skills and capabilities and [employee] proficiencies in them, and [employees] being able to see and alter them creates more confidence that how much they are being paid is based on the right information," Shook said. Accenture does not store employee data beyond a specific business use.

Employee concerns about data collection are rising

Concern %
Consumer scandals make me more concerned about company misuse64
Worried my data may be prone to cyberattacks61
Worried workplace data will help company treat me as unit of production rather than human59
Worried employer will use data collected on me as form of punishment55
Worried employer will spy on my every move55
Worried new technologies will perpetuate bias50

Even though mining of employee data will not slow and many companies continue to believe that greater employee input and consent isn't critical, Shook remains more "tech utopian" than dystopian when it comes to the future. "I am optimistic, but the thing companies need to recognize is that technology is not their biggest source of competitive advantage. It is people, and the real value is in collaboration."

But the Accenture executive isn't blind to the current disconnect between companies and their workforce, either.

She noted that previous Accenture research from 2017 indicated that companies spent 60 percent more investing in intelligent technology, while only 3 percent of CEOs said they were investing more in people using intelligent technology. "That is where the problem lies," Shook said.

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