The video camera at work that you thought was just for security is turning into a monitoring device for bosses seeking out malingerers, grouches and incompetents.
Already, several companies, including Baltimore-based Crown Central Petroleum Corp., have refocused security video cameras make them "management tools." With a briefcase-sized monitor, managers can use regular phone lines in homes, hotel rooms or offices to dial up cameras hundreds of miles away and secretly watch workers.
That's the most recent innovation in a decades-long trend toward increased electronic surveillance in the workplace. Already, many telephone company managers listen in on operators' conversations with customers. And a 1992 survey of New York employers found that 40 percent of the companies monitored their workers' computer keystrokes, using off-the-shelf software programs such as "Peek and Spy."
Some workers object to increased monitoring -- especially in light of past abuses with security cameras. In 1987, for example, nurses at Silver Spring's Holy Cross Hospital were switching through the channels on an office television when they found their dressing room live on Channel 16. The hospital, which said it had installed a camera in the room because of suspicious activity, agreed to remove it.
Still, video surveillance is likely to spread, because workplace monitoring is legal, demand for objective evaluation tools is growing, and equipment is getting cheaper by the minute.
Security-conscious companies such as convenience store operators have been among the first to widen the views of their cameras. But other employers -- from manufacturing plants to museums -- are likely to develop such systems, too, says Joseph P. Freeman, who heads a security industry research firm in Connecticut.
Expanding the uses of the already extensive network of security cameras, he said, "is inevitable. . . . It is truly the wave of the future."
At about 100 Crown gas stations and convenience stores in the Southeast, video cameras and microphones send sights and sounds to a security monitoring station in Rock Hill, S.C.
There, Crown's "intervention specialists" can watch, and, if they like, speak to workers in the stores using a speaker phone.
Originally, says Crown Vice President Edward M. Parker, the 2-year-old system was designed to provide someone to alert police or defuse confrontations at all-night stores. But then, he said he and other Crown executives realized, "This has management capabilities as well."
So they designed a portable monitor that allows managers to watch and listen to a store's operation through the security system.
Despite comparisons to the "telescreen" described in George Orwell's "1984" -- which agents of "Big Brother" used to watch everyone for politically inappropriate acts -- Mr. Parker says his // system "is not supposed to be a Big Brother thing."
Instead, the system helps Crown catch robbers, build cases against pilfering cashiers and summon help for injured workers. Managers also can use the system "to reinforce training, remind employees they need to make cash drops, maintain eye contact with customers, keep their uniforms on," and the like, Mr. Parker said.
The concept has been so popular that Crown formed a subsidiary to market it. In one year, Coronet Security Systems has sold monitoring equipment to hundreds of convenience stores and gas stations and is branching out to other industries.
Although he wouldn't disclose Coronet's sales, Mr. Parker says the division is profitable, and he has great expectations. American businesses spent more than $600 million last year on video security equipment, and demand is expected to grow by (( 10 percent a year. Coronet hopes to use that booming market as a launch pad.
Don Lyons, head of security for the Northeast region of Sunoco gas stations and convenience stores, will have installed Coronet's monitoring system in 170 stores from Philadelphia to Michigan by the end of this year.
Besides providing security, he hopes the system will help retain workers in a business plagued by rapid turnover. Sunoco doesn't have time to train workers before placing them in stores, but the monitors will help coach them in areas such as conflict resolution, he says. Sunoco will also install the system at its terminals so managers can monitor the "health and safety" of drivers who deliver oil and gasoline.
Richard Hudak, head of security for Boston-based ITT Sheraton Corp., says a system like Crown's will win customers in remote operations and wherever cash is handled. But Sheraton hotels won't be a buyer because the chain already uses some of its security cameras for management purposes such as allocating workers to handle a rush of customers, or taping workers for training.
Demand for all kinds of electronic monitoring techniques has boomed as the U.S. economy has shifted to services that are harder for managers to watch than production lines, says Rebecca Grant, an assistant professor of information systems at the University of Cincinnati.
"Management is grasping for something tangible because of wrongful-dismissal suits. If you fire somebody for being unproductive, you've got to be able to prove it," she said.
Researchers are divided on whether electronic monitoring causes stress among workers, she says. Her own studies show that "the stress comes from quotas that are enforced by monitoring if the quotas are unreasonable or if you are a low performer. The ones who are above average generally liked being monitored."
For people like Jerrie Roseborough, this strange new world is worth the loss of privacy.
Ms. Roseborough, who manages a Crown-owned "Fast Fare" convenience store near Rock Hill, S.C., was grabbed by a robber who held a broken beer bottle to her head early one morning last year. She gave him money from the till and secretly pressed a button on her key chain to alert the security monitors.
The robber was caught shortly afterward by police.
Ms. Roseborough, who has managed the store for 18 years, also uses the system to watch other workers. In the last year, she's fired four people for pilfering, using evidence from the monitoring system.
She is not bothered by the camera. "I have nothing to hide. They can film me all they want to."
But for some workers, surreptitious monitoring is already too real -- and, some say, abused.
Franklin Etienne, a room service steward at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston, recalls being stunned when his union local's president called him into an office and played a videotape of Mr. Etienne and fellow workers changing into their uniforms in the hotel's locker room. The tape had been discovered by a worker in a hotel meeting room.
"It was embarrassing. You think you are alone," he said.
Mr. Etienne, who emigrated here from Haiti in 1986, has joined a class-action suit charging that the hotel violated his privacy.
"Things like this happen in my country. My dream was to come to this country and be free to express myself. This is not the America I was thinking of," he said, adding that when he goes to work now, he is angry and frightened.
Mr. Hudak, the ITT Sheraton security official, declined to comment on the pending lawsuit.
Lewis Maltby, head of the employment rights section of the American Civil Liberties Union, is getting more and more calls from workers complaining about being taped at work.
He can't help many of them, though. "Most of us would find it oppressive to have a camera stare at us every day from 9 to 5," but the Constitution doesn't guarantee a right to privacy at work, except in places where people have a "reasonable expectation" of privacy, such as in bathrooms.
L Still, he warned: "We are heading down the road of '1984.' "
There are some moves to brake the spread of surreptitious monitoring.
U.S. Sen. Paul Simon plans to introduce a bill this spring that would require employers to warn workers who are being monitored, unless they had a "reasonable suspicion of illegal activity," said Kristina Zahorik, an aide to the Illinois Democrat.