You know that you are living in the future when business journals start to size up the ethical dimensions of companies implanting microchips into their staff. As was the case on 11 February, when a column on that very subject from Jane Crosby – partner at Surrey-based law firm Hart Brown – appeared at FinancialDirector.co.uk. 
In her piece, Crosby examines US software firm Three Square Market, which earned coverage last year at the MIT Technology Review for implanting near-field communication (NFC) chips into the hands of 80 staff members: around one-third of its workforce.  After stressing that all the participants were volunteers, Crosby explains that the implants have enabled staff to “pay for food in the company canteen, open doors, log into their computers and even use office equipment such as photocopiers with the wave of a hand”.
However, she notes, while this “workplace Jedi mind trick” may seem “completely harmless at first glance”, it has caused a furore around the world and posed some tricky leadership challenges. Some of the potential ethical flashpoints she cites are:
- the impacts on personal privacy
- the consequences of refusing to be microchipped by your employers (or, by extension, of employers making chip implants compulsory), and
- what exactly happens once you leave a role with the company chip still in your body?
All of that, she writes, is “without the problematic question of tracking peoples’ movements without their consent, exactly what type of information is being stored on those chips (and we’re into GDPR territory here, too), and what kind of safeguards are put in place (as well as how those safeguards are enforced)”.
Reports suggest that legislative interest in the practice is growing, with US lawmakers introducing House Bill 1177 in the middle of January  to prevent workers from being implanted with microchips without their consent. As Crosby points out: “Trying to force employees to accept microchipping could backfire dramatically on any company that tries to do it, regardless of whether it’s seen as a positive move by the instigators or not.”
With all those points in mind, which best-practice steps would any firm pondering such an experiment have to take to ensure staff feel comfortable with it?
The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “If you have a smartphone, then as long as that device is on your person, you are totally trackable. And of course, smartphones are used more and more for functions other than speaking to people – such as providing access to train platforms, or gaining entry to specific premises. So, people have become used to that sort of technology. Similarly, figures from the British Security Industry Association show that there are currently six million CCTV cameras in active use around the UK – approximately one for every 11 people.  So there’s a sense in which we, as a society, have become accustomed to being surveilled.”
Nonetheless, Cooper points out: “If you are going to microchip your staff, it has to be done with their agreement. The advantages that employees will gain from the procedure – in terms of not having to carry an ID card or company phone at all times, for example – may have some attraction. As with any form of surveillance, there must be clear benefits that justify the use of the technology. There must be safeguards in place marking out the parameters of what the chips will, and will not, be used for.”
She notes: “If any employers go down the road of enforcing this arrangement as compulsory by making it a contractual condition of employment, then that must really be applied to new joiners coming onboard after the implementation date. To try and impose microchipping upon people who have already been with an organisation for a period of time in which that was not the regime would be totally unreasonable.”
Cooper adds: “What concerns me about this trend is the message it sends out about trust. If we’re looking to harness the functional conveniences that these chips can provide, then that’s all well and good. But if organisations introduce chipping out of some desire, or need, to know where everyone is, then we’re sailing into pretty murky waters. Indeed, it’s ironic that, at a time when many organisations are waking up to the benefits of flexible working –allowing staff to work remotely from home offices, shared hubs or even local cafes – that others are seeking to keep tabs on their staff in this way.
“Above all, there has to be a compelling case for using this technology – and leaders must be open and transparent about what that case is.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this article, check out the Institute’s resources on ethics