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In loco parentis

It is sad when managers cannot do their jobs. It can also be funny. The comic strip Dilbert is a series of case studies in some of the ways in which managers make up for the fact that they are frequently way out of their depth when dealing with humans such as the employees who have the misfortune to report to them.

For the last few weeks I've been seeing an ad in a number of publications that started me thinking about how some companies still treat employees as chattel, managing to waste a significant portion of their value -- their ability to think. The ad shows a person that one could only describe as a source of inspiration for Scott Adams peering out of the page under the headline "Do you know where your employees were today?" The ad is for a software package that can monitor what Internet sites your employees have had the audacity to visit.

I have nothing against the package itself. I expect it does its job quite well. But I do lament the fact that closely monitoring employees activities is seen as a productive management technique. There are clearly some recent examples that are driving some companies to employ such software. For example, one of the largest US corporations showed up in the top sources of visits to the Penthouse web page last year, second only to a university full of hormonally augmented undergraduates.

I fully understand that the employees are using corporate resources for the pursuit of what might be personal happiness. I also understand that there is a risk of misguided employees posting company secrets or pronouncements on mailing lists that might be taken as statements of company positions on potentially controversial topics

But somehow I find it hard to believe that an individual working for a company which feels it must monitor what web sites they visit is going to be all that enthusiastic about going out of his way to figure out how to make the company's product or service better. I may be a bit naive but I would think it is more important to the future of the company that employees are actually performing the tasks that are assigned and working well with their fellow employees than it might be to know if the same employees used a company machine to find a recipe for chicken breast with tarragon sauce during lunch time.

I may also be lucky since wherever I've worked I've been evaluated on how well I do my assigned tasks and on my ability to be self motivating and, in particular, go beyond the specific assigned tasks. Somehow I would find it unlikely that I would be all that self motivated if I worked for a company that monitored my every action or, as some do, so distrusts their employees that the phones on their desks cannot be used to make outside calls. If they need to check to see that a sick child is OK they have to go stand in line waiting for access to one of the few pay phones.

Universities do have to act in loco parentis, in the place of parents, for their students in some cases -- it does not seem to me to be in the best interests of a corportation to do the same for their employees.

disclaimer: Harvard treats its employees as adults but has never told me what its opinion is on the topic of not doing so- thus the above is my comment on what happens when the employee is smarter than the manager.