Microchipping Workers?

In a sign of mounting concerns over high-tech employee tracking, some states are preemptively banning even untried measures.

Congratulations, you’re hired. But if you want to work from home, you’ll have to get microchipped.

With most offices still closed and remote work likely to remain in some form even after they open, companies are increasingly turning to tracking and monitoring software to keep an eye on employees. So much so, in fact, that the lengths companies are going to have caught the attention of lawmakers, who are preemptively trying to stop them before they go too far.

Nearly a dozen states have already enacted laws banning employers from implanting microchips or other tracking devices in employees’ bodies, even though no company requires or even encourages the practice. Mark Royal, a Korn Ferry Advisory senior director, says the legislation—which has been passed in 11 states, including Arkansas, California, Missouri, and Wisconsin—is meant to head off any company actions. “States are worried that companies may try to introduce implanting microchips as a condition of employment,” he says.

That there is even talk of microchipping employees underscores the growing tension between employees wanting to work from home and organizations needing to ensure that they maintain productivity. Companies are recording keystrokes to see how long people are at their computers and taking screenshots to see what websites they are visiting. Some are scanning emails and tracking the amount of time spent on specific tasks. In all, software to measure and monitor employee productivity is expected to grow to more than $103 billion by 2027 from $45 billion in 2019.

For their part, employees say the measures are at best a sign of mistrust and potentially a violation of privacy. And experts say they are not only starting to produce diminishing returns but also could eventually cause recruiting and retention issues, especially for highly talented workers with job options. Linda Hyman, Korn Ferry’s executive vice president of global human resources, says organizations that focus on outcomes rather than activity get more production out of remote workers. She says it’s up to managers to clarify accountabilities and how to measure them. “Tracking is reverting to the easy way out,” she says.

But microchipping employees may not be as dystopian as it sounds. In fact, amid remote work and heightened concern about employees’ physical and mental well-being, experts say the action could be positioned as a health and safety measure. Numerous studies show markedly elevated levels of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and stress as a result of the pandemic, particularly among people who live alone. By monitoring employees, a company could conceivably be the first to notice signs of a potential health risk, such as a heart attack, says David Vied, global sector leader for Korn Ferry’s Medical Devices and Diagnostics practice. “It’s important how firms present it to employees,” he says.

After all, many people do already voluntarily opt-in to similar tracking of their vital signs or location through their smart devices. Chris Cantarella, a Korn Ferry senior vice president and global sector leader for the firm’s Software practice, says just because some states have banned microchipping employees doesn’t mean that’s the last word on the topic. He says the issue is likely to evolve as governance of emerging technologies becomes an increasing focus of regulators and corporate boards. “It’s all about what data companies are collecting, what they are doing with it, and what insights they can draw from it,” says Cantarella. “Can they get an insight from microchipping that doesn’t violate privacy and is valuable to all sides?”