Many companies are encouraging employees to wear smart watches, carry smartphones, and wear other bits of technology on the job. Mostly, this is to help employees be healthier or more productive. But, what’s the real implications of wearing this tech?

Secret Spies

With most wearables, a concern is whether the employer is spying on the employees, or using the data collected for some other purpose which, if the employee knew, he or she would not approve.

According to Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney for digital privacy advocate group Electronic Frontier Foundation, employers probably can mandate the use of on-the-job wearables, within limits. For employers, the best bet is to collect as little data as possible to avoid privacy concerns.

There’s also the matter of confidentiality during working hours and even off-work hours. Suppose an employee attends a union meeting, which is legal, but which the employer discourages. Could the employee be singled out, and identified? This erases the protection of the union, if so.

Another related problem is one that involves the employee wearing the tech off-hours and being tracked while running personal errands. Or, if the employee is interviewing for a new job because he or she doesn’t feel like there is advancement at the current employer — would the employee be punished or terminated before a new job was secured?

Wellness Program Concerns

Many employers have optional wellness plans. These plans consist of gym memberships and programs designed to help employees live a healthier lifestyle. Some wellness programs really dig deep into an employee’s personal life and reward positive outcomes or behaviors. Obviously, to monitor an employee’s success, the employer needs to know a fair bit about the employee.

However, employers need to keep the information anonymized. For example some rental agencies that use Carro.sg to find new fleet vehicles go and install cameras and monitoring devices. Employees that drive these vehicles around may be recorded or monitored. Some rental agencies install GPS monitoring devices on vehicles they lease to consumers, too.

Anonymizing the data they collect ensures that they do not violate an employee’s privacy.

Mandating Wearables

According to Jason Geller, partner at law firm Fisher & Phillips, mandating wearables should provide a policy that outlines the reason for collecting the information. It should also put limits on the use of that data. Employers risk claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act if a less active employee feels they’re being penalized or discriminated against due to their productivity levels.

You could see how this could become a major problem.

Suppose a disabled individual is monitored for a performance-based raise, or suppose the employer is monitoring performance of employees, in general. The disabled person may fear that they’re being passed over on a raise because of their disability. It may or may not be true, but they may fear it and bring a case against the employer. Realistically, the employer has very little recourse if the employee can successfully sue in court.

And, judges and the court may look for favourably on the employee than the employer.

Notifying Employers of Personal Health Problems

Before the advent of wearable health tech, health problems could be kept confidential, between the doctor and the patient. If the employer has access to employee health information, however, this introduces a new complexity. Will the employer be able to comply with HIPAA and keep the employee’s health information private?

Will health privacy laws apply since the employee already agreed to share such information?

There’s another problem, too, concerning liability and responsibility for the employer to inform the employee of abnormal results or discoveries. According to Edward McNicholas, a partner at law firm Sidley Austin, if an employer finds symptoms of a disease or illness, should the employer be legally obligated to inform the employee? McNicholas says he would advise employers to do that.

Conclusion

Wearables present a new dynamic in the workplace that has never been tested before. It may alter how companies and employees deal with one another. One thing is clear and that is that we’re entering new territory and a workplace dynamic that we’ve never seen before.

While there is potential for concern, there is also a potential for some very good things to happen. Employers could better serve and inform employees about their health, reward employees for positive health-related habits and behaviours, and help keep employees out of harm’s way.

In the end, a lot depends on how employees perceive the tech, and how employers use it.

A programmer by training and a venture capitalist by profession. Aaron founded his first startup at 13 and subsequently sold two companies before turning 21. Former IT Youth of the Year, Aaron represented Singapore in programming competitions overseas. Aaron subsequently accepted a scholarship from the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore and read computer science at Carnegie Mellon and Singapore Management University. As a returning scholar, Aaron joined SEAs leading venture fund Singtel Innov8 ventures. Aaron was instrumental in the starting of Blk71 Singapores largest startup ecosystem. He subsequently relocated to the United States and started Block71 San Francisco and the firms San Francisco operations before returning to Singapore in 2015. While at Innov8, Aaron oversees funds investments in South East Asia. Aaron left Singtel Innov8 in October 2015, having spent almost five years in the fund. He is currently CEO of Carro, a venture backed used car marketplace. Aaron was most recently awarded the ITMA Future IT Leader Award. Aaron graduated Summa Cum Laude with a BSc and MSc from Singapore Management University School of Information Systems and Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science.