Brave New World-Biometrics in HR

Human resources (HR) professionals often have to deal with errors in recording employees’ effectiveness while accomplishing their jobs. My colleague Ted Rohm gives an overview in this recent blog post of how biometrics can help with these HR challenges. He makes the case that biometrics technology is an option worth considering for certain aspects of business operations.

As Ted mentions in his article, the most common use cases of biometrics in HR are time and attendance, access control, and shop floor data collection. All these aspects are related to tracing employee punching accurately. In so doing, HR technology attempts to eliminate "buddy punching," enforce compliance with company-specific and governmental labor regulations, and increase employee engagement while on the job.

Biometrics technology uses a scanning device of some sort, an application that is able to process scanned information and compare it against stored information, and a database of (often sensitive) information. Although this technology is sometimes seen as being intrusive with respect to personal data, overall a biometrics system does not seem all that extraordinary, as HR departments have always dealt with private data about people—in fact, ensuring people’s privacy is part of HR’s responsibilities.

If, as most of us assume, HR departments are equipped both technologically and ethically to handle highly confidential data, why is it that biometrics may tread into uncomfortable territory? Even if heavily legislated by the government, biometrics in HR still feels a bit creepy.

Surveillance Issues

Most people can identify with issues related to having their actions monitored outside the workplace. Although punching in/out with a card or mobile phone the same way you would do on the subway or bus is not that much different than touching a device with a finger, an overbearing feeling of intrusiveness ensues in most of us when biometrics are involved. This can be explained by the common belief that whoever is in the possession of biometric information could easily use it to find out about one’s personal information or history.

The idea that something as personal as a fingerprint is stored and used for the tracking of peoples’ movements in and out of workplaces and throughout the completion of tasks, etc. may also cause frustration in employees who feel that there is no way out of the pre-defined and strict checking in/checking out procedure required by a company. Today’s employees have become more demanding in terms of flexible work environments and biometrics seems to go exactly against that as it could restrict employee’s work locations and times, and monitor work hours more closely than has been possible before.

Ted’s article asserts that biometrics technology is quickly being adopted by companies in many industries, although this adoption has not been as widely publicized as other of-the-moment technologies, such as cloud or social. This remark is particularly interesting in the context of surveillance measures—which are perceived as somewhat secretive. Indeed, perhaps the non-existent biometrics hype attempts to eschew heavy debates around the topic.

 A Question of Identity 

Biometric systems are not necessarily error-proof. A fingerprint, for example, can be accidentally associated to the wrong person. Such cases of ‘identity confusion’ would become time consuming to fix and clarify, especially in organizations with high turnover.

Identity theft is a common crime that many governments are trying to prevent by applying harsh punishments to the criminals involved and by increasing security measures for institutions who handle private information. Many people change jobs several times over their lifetimes, and having people’s biometric data duplicated on the servers of many employers could open the door for hackers to take ahold of that information and use it for criminal purposes, as some biometric information, such as a fingerprints, can be "faked" by biometric hackers. Thus it is understandable that people fear that biometric data can be stolen and misused.

Ensuring Balanced Responsibility and Power

Ensuring the confidentiality of biometrics data requires highly trained and skilled workers who know how to manipulate this data securely and ethically. As a consequence these groups of people would hold great responsibility/power over the persons whose identities they are protecting. This could lead to disproportionate gaps between categories of employees, where one group is invested with state-like access to information while the rest of the employees are left in the dark about what personal information about them is held by others at the company.

These are some of the reasons why people hesitate to participate in programs or activities that require that they share their biometrics data. Most of these reasons, if not all, have to do with having to relinquish one’s right to privacy for the greater good. As biometrics solutions become more widely available and companies are choosing to use biometrics to increase business efficiency, employers should be careful with respecting the rights, privacy, and dignity of their employees when integrating this technology into the workplace and workflows.

If considering implementing biometric solutions, HR teams and organizations at large could perhaps consider establishing formal or informal trust policies that demonstrate an understanding of physical, cultural, and personal diversity. Perhaps this would help to create more enjoyable work environments where managers don’t feel like employees are cutting corners and employees don’t feel like managers have "hidden cameras" trained on every move.
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