The ethical conundrum began when my bosses realised one of the retail assistants (I’ll call her ‘Amber’) was arriving late at work but timing in early. As a result Dave made the assumption that if Amber was being dishonest; his other employees may also be up to no good. A week later a sophisticated video surveillance system appeared, totalling seven high definition cameras aimed at every angle of the small shop. My bosses claimed that the cameras would assist us in ‘catching’ shoplifters; however, it soon became apparent the cameras were primarily being used for another purpose. Observing the shop from a large monitor installed in their home, my bosses were ringing up multiple times a day to ‘check-up’ on myself and the other sales assistants. I remember one particular instance when I was serving a customer by bringing an item to the counter for her; my co-worker was also at the counter waiting for another customer to pay. Within seconds the phone was ringing and my boss was demanding to know why we were both standing around wasting his money. I politely explained the situation, but regardless to say, the rest of my day wasn’t very enjoyable. Such scenes were oft repeated. We girls grumbled about the situation but felt powerless to do anything. As a result morale plummeted – a common occurrence in a workplace with video surveillance cameras hanging off every wall (Rosner, 1999). Initially I hadn’t been too bothered by the cameras, but as the weeks progressed and the phone calls increased, I began to feel belittled and un-appreciated; I knew I either had to address the issue soon or leave.
While employers have a legal ‘right’ to install video cameras in the workplace, many employees consider corporate surveillance to be unethical and highly intrusive (Bassick, McNamara, Sullivan, 2006). Shaw, Barry and Sansbury point out in Moral Issues in Business that serious moral questions arise when “monitoring devices are not used exclusively for the purposes intended but also for cajoling, harassing or snooping on employees” (2009, p. 452). I was studying ethics at university during this time, and it became clear to me that I was facing an ethical dilemma as there was no clear-cut right or wrong answer (Ghillyer, 2010). In this case, the action was legal (installing cameras) but morally wrong (unduly harassing employees) (Shaw, et al., 2009). Peslak (2005) points out that while business owners need to protect their interests, forcing employees to act in a particular manner through surveillance is not an ethical way to control behaviour.
Enacting what one knows to be virtuous often requires courage (Ladkin, 2010, p.
174), and to be honest, I didn’t want to be courageous. But I realised that I needed to do something as I had perceived the situation not to be ‘right’ and was feeling increasingly uncomfortable (Ladkin, 2010, p. 175). Having unconsciously decided to take up the ‘leader’ role, I rang my boss and requested a meeting with him to discuss ‘work issues.’ I was nervous – this conversation had the potential to shape the store’s work environment for better or worse and would influence my decision to stay or not. I spoke on behalf of all the employees when I sat down with my boss for coffee that morning and discussed exactly how I felt about the cameras and their current mode of use. Although the bosses didn’t immediately stop ringing every day, their behaviour gradually changed. Three months later the surveillance system was
only being used for its original purpose – deterring shoplifters. My willingness to address the problem honestly and ethically has built long-lasting mutual respect between myself and my employers.
Originally I didn’t consider my role in vocally addressing the ethical dilemma as leadership. I started this course imagining ‘leadership’ was simply the act of effectively leading a large group of people or an organisation, primarily using transactional or transformational methods. However, analysing the situation has helped me understand what Ladkin really means when she says leadership cannot be restricted to one set definition, but is rather a ‘moment’ of social relations “dependent on the historical, social and psychological context from which it arises” (2010, p. 27). The ethical issue gave me a chance to practice leadership. By identifying the ‘yuck factor’ (Midgley, 1992) and questioning the status quo on behalf of all the employees, I was able to assist my bosses in finding new ways of doing things which didn’t involve unnecessary video supervision.
Barclay, J. (2013, June 25). Beyond homeschooling NZ 2013. Retrieved from Home Education Foundation: http://hef.org.nz/2013/beyond-homeschooling-nz- 2013/
Bassick, M., McNamara, T., & Sullivan, D. (2007). Employee surveillance: An ethical consideration. The Ethical Imperative in the Context of Evolving Technologies, 77, 1-14.
Ghillyer, A. (2010). Business ethics. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
Ladkin, D. (2010). Rethinking leadership: A new look at old leadership questions. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.
Midgley, M. (1992). Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and its Meaning. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.
Peslak, A. (2005). An exploration of privacy and radio frequency identification. Journal of Business Ethics, 59, 327-345.
Rosner, B. (1999). How do you feel about video surveillance at work? Workforce, 78(10), 26.
Shaw, W. H., Barry, V., & Sansbury, G. (2009). Moral issues in business. Melbourne, Vic: Cengage Learning Australia Pty Limited.
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