Bad bosses: What’s wrong with labor algorithms

Algorithms that allow companies to monitor an employee’s every move are getting a serious look from policymakers and labor leaders who contend they are unfair and dangerous.

Taking direct aim at Amazon, California last week became the first state to pass a law banning the use of algorithms to track rest breaks and prohibiting workers from being fired for not meeting unsafe productivity quotas.

Wharton management professor Lindsey Cameron says she expects more states will explore similar legislation as the issue gains traction. Amazon isn’t the only company that uses algorithms to keep an eye on employees; it’s a practice that’s becoming more prevalent across industries from retail to health care.

“When you have an algorithm as a boss, it’s a hard, and at times even unforgiving, supervisor,” she says. “That’s what’s really exciting about this new legislation [in California] because it can put some stopgaps around that.”

Cameron described the algorithms as “Taylorism for the modern-day,” referring to a scientific management theory from the early 1900s. Supervisors used a stopwatch to time workers and eliminate any unnecessary physical motions that they believe impeded productivity. Cameron says that kind of intrusive monitoring strips away human dignity and robs employees of pay for time spent on work-related activities like standing in line, taking a bathroom break, or waiting for approval from a boss.

“There’s all these other things that factor into doing the work—or doing work that supports you in doing the work—that might be counted against you because at the end of the day the numbers don’t match whatever the algorithm says is the best work overall or standard metric to beat,” she says.

Read more at Knowledge@Wharton.