He refused to keep his webcam on, so the company fired him

Is management really about being able to constantly watch over your employees? A court suggests it isn't.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer
A black webcam with an open lens against a light grey background

Is there a justification for constant surveillance?

Image: Victure

If only you could see me now, you wouldn't be able to manage your emotions.

But perhaps that'll still be the case when you reach the end of this tale.

For this, you see, is the tale of a remote employee who didn't like being ordered to keep his webcam on. All the time.

Perhaps you can understand his feelings. Who really likes being watched all day when they're in the comforts -- or, indeed, confines -- of their own home? Certainly not this unnamed employee of a software company called Chetu.

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He was asked by his bosses to attend something called a Corrective Action Program.

I don't know about you, but I'd have been tempted to resign the minute I heard that name. Who could ever imagine a Corrective Action Program would be an entertaining -- or even stimulating -- idea.

In this case, the NL Times reported that employees were required to log on all day, with their webcams on. Oh, and screen-sharing, too. Yes, it was a virtual training program, but doesn't that seem a touch much?

The employee -- he worked in telemarketing -- offered this reply: "I don't feel comfortable being monitored for nine hours a day by a camera. This is an invasion of my privacy and makes me feel really uncomfortable. That's the reason why my camera isn't on. You can already monitor all activities on my laptop and I am sharing my screen."

You might imagine he had a point. You might also imagine the company wasn't happy. 

The man who stood up for his privacy was accused of "insubordination" and the very curious "refusal to work."

Perhaps many employees would simply accept this. Perhaps most of those employees are in the US. This particular employee, though, was in the Netherlands.

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So he took corrective action.

He brought a lawsuit against Chetu and, you may be cheered to hear, won 75,000 Euros.

The court's conclusion made for bracing reading: "The employer has not made it clear enough about the reasons for the dismissal. Moreover, there has been no evidence of a refusal to work, nor was there a reasonable instruction. Instruction to leave the camera on is contrary to the employee's right to respect for his private life."

This all leads to a fascinating question.

Is there any time when an employer really, really needs to watch over an employee? In a constant manner, that is.

How much of management should involve constant oversight and surveillance and how much should revolve around trust and results?

It's an issue that became acute during the pandemic. More and more companies invested in surveillance software because, well, why? They were afraid employees would slack off at home? They were afraid employees wouldn't dress up? Or just because they were inherently mistrusting organizations?

Also: Bosses spying on you? Here's the most disastrous truth about surveillance software

Remote work has unquestionably changed much of the corporate dynamic, especially during a period of relatively full employment.

Employees can not only choose where they work, but how they do it. Shouldn't, then, bosses focus on results, motivation and atmosphere rather than infinite spying?

In this particular case, the employee's every work-related action was already been surveilled and logged. Wasn't that enough? Wasn't that, in fact, already too much?

One can't help reach the conclusion that managers need to find new and different ways of managing, as employees have found new and different ways of working.

Constant spying just isn't it.

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