Moral Dilemma #2: The Surveillance

IMG_5521Last week I wrote about a moral dilemma I had while working at a movie theater many years ago. Now I’m back with another moral dilemma I had while working at an alarm company one summer during college.

I was reminded of this experience by an article I read recently about a study involving surveillance. The study placed surveillance cameras at restaurants to see if they reduced bad behavior by employees. Obviously it did. The surprising result, though, was that employees actually worked harder. Because they weren’t able to get away with their usual shenanigans, they spent more effort trying to get customers to buy an extra drink or dessert. They sold more, they were better servers, and they made more money.

I might write a future moral dilemma about restaurants, but that isn’t what I’m hear for today. I spent one of my college summers working in the “central station” of an alarm company. You know, the kind of company that monitors your house when you’re away.

This involved sitting in a locked room with no windows for 8 hours a day while watching the computer screen for alarms. When an alarm appeared in the queue, it was our job to click on it and respond. During busy times, most everyone was responding to alarms, so there were only a few people available to grab the new alarms. I worked quickly and got a lot of alarms as a result.

There were always 6 of us in the room that summer, me and 5 middle-aged black women. Their race, age, and gender don’t matter except that it kind of did matter, because when else in my life did I spend 8 hours a day in a room with 5 middle-aged black women?! It was a fascinating experience, and I learned a lot that summer.

If  you put yourself in a room with 5 other people at work, the chances are pretty good that one of them won’t be a hard worker. That was the case that summer.

I can’t remember her name–I’ll call her Marcy–but there was one woman who had figured out a loophole in the system. There were some alarms that were far less urgent than others. For example, a “trouble” signal indicated that there was something slightly off about an alarm system that we needed to look into before resolving the alarm. Usually they were glitches in the system that could be solved if we called the homeowner and had them reset their system.

So dear Marcy would grab a trouble signal, making it look like she was doing something on her computer screen and blocking her account from other incoming alarms. She would then proceed to call a friend and spend the next hour talking on the phone. She even had a specific tone of voice for those phone calls–a “this is really important” voice. If a supervisor walked into the room, it would look like Marcy was hard at work. I would often go through 10 or more alarms in the time that it took Marcy to finish responding to one trouble signal.

I don’t know if it’s relevant, but there’s one other thing you should know about Marcy: She was very poor. She had two kids from two different fathers, neither of whom were in the picture. When her kids had birthdays, everyone in the office chipped in to get them gifts. Working at the alarm company was actually a pretty good job for her, and losing it would have hurt her quite a bit.

Honestly, it really frustrated me that Marcy wasn’t doing her job. I had to work twice as hard because of her abuse of the system, and she was getting away with theft of the company’s time. I always feel inherently loyal to the company I work for, and I didn’t like that they were being deceived.

So as my last day approached and I prepared to go back to college, I seriously debated telling my supervisor what Marcy was doing. It wouldn’t have been hard to prove at all–the supervisor could look at the records and see how long Marcy was spending on trouble signals.

In the end, I decided not to say anything. It didn’t feel like the right decision, but I also didn’t feel like it was my place to report Marcy. I guess I could have confronted Marcy about what she was doing. I didn’t have the balls to do that, though.

What do you think? What is the morally correct thing to do? What would you have done?

6 thoughts on “Moral Dilemma #2: The Surveillance”

  1. In my experience, I find that the bosses usually already know. Maybe they don’t want to risk a discrimination lawsuit if they fire the person. (You can bet that Marcy knew how to cause trouble in that regard; the slackers nearly always do.) Maybe they didn’t want to go to the trouble of having to find a new employee. Maybe the boss was a relative or family friend. Maybe the boss didn’t have the balls to discipline her. It always amazes me when people like that get to just cruise through life and collect their paycheck. My experiences have shown that the more I squawk about someone’s lousy work ethic, the more I’m made out to be a problem employee. It sucks hard to report someone and have nothing happen.

  2. They already knew. Having worked with call center managers before, they usually keep very detailed stats on how many calls are being taken by each employee, how long they spend on the call, when the calls were arriving for staffing purposes, how each call was resolved, etc. Even though you were providing a critical response to the client, you weren’t actually bringing in new sales, so it’s in the best interest of the company to run the department as effeciently as possible.

    They were most likely building a file to terminate her. They may have needed a few months of recorded poor performance with appropriate coaching to help her improve. As the behavior continued, they then had to go through a disciplinary process like verbal warnings and written warnings before they could fire her.

    Or you just had really lazy management. 🙂

    • Oh, I have no doubt that they had detailed stats on all of this. I just don’t know if they actually looked at the stats. If they did, it makes sense that they were building a file to terminate her. Perhaps someday I’ll run into the supervisor and ask her myself.


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