In the middle of January, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued its judgment in the case López Ribalda et al v Spain, in which five supermarket cashiers had challenged their employer’s move to put them under surveillance by installing secret video cameras in their workplace.

Although the cashiers were told in advance about the visible cameras that were placed around the store, they were not informed about a series of covert cameras that had been fitted at about the same time. As a result of footage that had been gathered from the hidden cameras, the cashiers were dismissed from their roles – with the retail chain citing evidence of both theft and the assistance of theft.

In their subsequent legal challenge, the cashiers had argued that their right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been infringed by their employer’s use of hidden cameras to monitor their work.

On 9 January, the ECHR announced that it agreed with the plaintiffs, with its judicial panel holding, by six votes to one, that the cashiers’ Article 8 rights had indeed been violated. The Court ordered the Spanish government – which had become involved in the case in lower courts – to pay each of the cashiers €4,000.

It’s a case replete with moral complexity, and there are signs that this is only going to grow in the workplace as time goes on. In a recent article on the case, CIPD’s People Management magazine notes that employers have a wealth of technology at their disposal to keep tabs on their staff, such as software for monitoring web-browsing patterns and, for even greater detail, keystroke logs.

Are there circumstances in which the use of such technologies is morally valid? And what can employers do to ensure that they will not have to go down that road in the first place?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's CEO Phil James says: “If people are consistently and systematically stealing from you, and it’s endemic, then that should be telling you something. Either there’s a peer-pressure factor – eg, ‘Other people are doing it, so why shouldn’t I?’ – or these individuals feel entitled to steal as a means of hitting out at low wages, and supplementing their income.

“So there are real questions here for leaders. It’s reasonable to ask whether you, as a manager, are nurturing ethical values in the workplace that your staff will live by. And part of that equation is: what kind of signal are you sending out with your wages? Perhaps your willingness to remunerate at only a low level for certain roles is a contributing factor to the activity that has occurred. Are you prepared to run a business in which you routinely dismiss staff for those activities, only to replace them with people who will receive exactly the same pay – and feel tempted to follow in their predecessors’ footsteps?”

On the specific point of surveillance, James notes: “there’s no doubt that this is increasing across the board, let alone in the workplace. A mechanic recently told me, ‘If you don’t want anyone to know anything about you, then buy an old car,’ because newer models spill out so much data about where you have been and who you’ve been talking to. The UK is widely recognised as one of the world’s leading surveillance hotspots. China is testing sunglasses embedded with facial-recognition technology for use in policing. It seems logical to assume that the Met will be monitoring those trials very closely.

“In the specific area of the workplace, we have already seen wearable devices touted as a means of preventing City traders from taking unacceptable risks. There have been many stories about how Amazon monitors the actions of its warehouse staff, and it has recently been revealed that the organisation has patented a wristband that will make it easier to track workers’ movements. The more commonplace this becomes, the more it will be seen as normal. While I wouldn’t go so far as to describe surveillance as a ‘red herring’ in this debate, I see it as a less important factor than what leaders are doing to build trust.”

James explains: “Just look at shoe-repairs and key-cutting firm Timpson: 8% of the company’s staff are former offenders – and there’s every sign that its compassionate recruitment policy towards people who have exited prison is paying dividends. Indeed, James Timpson, who oversees most of the day-to-day running of the firm, is chair of the Prison Reform Trust. That alone indicates that the company has a high level of insight into the trust dynamics that must be applied to helping offenders reintegrate with society.

“So, the question is: do you want to foster an environment that turns employees into offenders… or offenders into employees?”

For further thoughts about how to build trust, check out these learning resources from the Institute