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HUMAN RESOURCES

The Shock and Awe of Ikea's Employee Spying Program

Some of the big companies hire private detectives to spy on their employees. Should you?
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Ikea made headlines this week for spying on its French employees. A lot. Enough, according to the New York Times that Ikea spent €475,000 ($654,170) over a 10-year period on spying. Just in France. That's a lot of cloak and dagger activity for one Swedish-furniture maker.

Why? Well, to see if people on sick leave were as sick as they said they were, to vet job candidates and even to find ways to resolve disputes. France (and other European countries) has much stricter privacy laws than we do in the U.S., so what Ikea is getting in legal trouble for there, may not hit your business the same way here.

Still, should spy on your employees?

The general answer is no. Employees have lives outside of work. Some of them say things about the company on social media. Some of them do activities that you don't particularly care for. In most cases, you simply ignore that and as long as they're performing up to speed in the office, it's all good.

But, what about when they aren't performing up to speed? What about when they require Family Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, leave for chronic back problems and you suspect that they don't really have serious back problems?

Or your employee requests "intermittent" FMLA (this means you take time off when needed, not all at once) to care for his ailing mother, and you suspect he's not really caring for her?

Or your employee has filed a huge worker's compensation claim, because of an on-the-job injury and you suspect the injury isn't nearly as bad as she is making it out to be? In fact, fighting fraud is a common task for the Worker's Compensation Fund (WCF). One of their most "amusing" stories:

As a hang glider test pilot, the pilot enjoyed a challenge. While demonstrating a product to a group, the aircraft malfunctioned and plummeted. Luckily, he had a parachute and was able to make it safely to the ground, except for a dislocated shoulder. For the next two years, the pilot claimed his arm was too severely injured to return to work. Physicians tried every available treatment with no success. In the meantime, the pilot decided to move to sunny, southern California. After a tip from a former employer, surveillance video showed him parasailing off cliffs at Torrey Pines Glider Port in La Jolla, Calif.

The WCF asked the pilot to return to Utah for an independent medical exam. At the exam, he told the physician he could not open his car door because of his shoulder pain. After seeing the surveillance, the doctor released the pilot to go back to work.

Subsequently, the pilot pleaded guilty to workers' compensation fraud. WCF saved almost $120,000 in medical and lost time benefits.

Most employee spying cases aren't as dramatic as this one. But the reality is, worker's comp is not cheap. FMLA (even though it's technically unpaid) is not cheap either. And what about plain, ordinary fraud? Companies want to protect themselves. And so, sometimes they resort to spying.

If you are going to spy on an employee, you need to check and double check the laws in your area to see what you are allowed to do. For your spying to have any actual value to you, it will have to be upheld in a court, so do everything by the book. Consult with your attorney (or your insurance carrier's attorney) first. Don't make spying your default activity. And don't go seeking information without having some outside information first. (That is, don't monitor your employees' Facebook pages in the hopes that they'll slip up, but if someone else comes to you with a copy of a picture the employee posted on Facebook, start from there.)

It would be great if you could always trust your employees to be honest in everything that they do and say. Unfortunately, when you suspect fraud, you need to act or end up paying the cost yourself. And sometimes, that involves spying.

Last updated: Dec 17, 2013

SUZANNE LUCAS | Columnist

Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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