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Recently, TikTok made headlines for the wrong reasons — introducing a badge monitoring app called MyRTO, aimed at enforcing its office attendance policy as part of a top-down return-to-office mandate. According to the New York Times, this app tracks employees’ badge swipes and can even penalize them for “deviations” from their expected attendance. While many companies are recalibrating post-pandemic work expectations, TikTok’s approach not only raises serious ethical issues but also amplifies broader concerns about its surveillance culture. Let’s deconstruct why this is a critical misstep for the platform.
TikTok’s employee monitoring
In an era where employee expectations have shifted toward greater work-life balance and flexibility, TikTok has chosen a path that is perilous for its brand, not to speak of employee retention, productivity, and morale. The company recently deployed an employee badge monitoring app called MyRTO. Built into TikTok’s own internal software, MyRTO monitors badge swipes as employees enter the office.
The broad policy for TikTok employees involves coming to the office in person at least three times per week, and a smaller percentage is even required to be in five days per week. The MyRTO tool may demand explanations for absences when the employees were expected to be on-site. The data compiled by MyRTO is shared with human resources and is also made visible to the employees themselves. Notably, the company has even threatened termination for employees whose home addresses do not align with their designated office locations. The policy aims to create “transparency and clarity” about return-to-office expectations, according to a TikTok spokesperson.
Related: It’s a Job Seeker’s Market — Here’s Why Employers Should Think Twice About Using Surveillance Technology
The dangers of employee monitoring
A Harvard Business Review article finds that such monitoring can have unintended consequences. The researchers conducted a survey of over 100 U.S.-based professionals — some under workplace surveillance and some not. The findings indicated a pronounced trend: employees under scrutiny were notably more prone to unauthorized break-taking, insubordination, willful property damage, stealing and purposefully working at a slow pace, among other rule-breaking behaviors.
Of course, this survey only determined correlation — so to prove causation, the authors ran a second, experimental study. They asked another 200 U.S.-based employees to complete a series of tasks. Half of this cohort was informed they would be under electronic watch while completing specific assignments. Intriguingly, those aware of the monitoring exhibited a higher propensity for unethical conduct, such as cheating, compared to their unmonitored counterparts.
How did the researchers explain these seemingly contradictory findings? Employees who knew they were being monitored were more likely to offload the responsibility for their actions to the authority figures conducting the surveillance. This reduction in a sense of personal agency made them more likely to act against their moral compass.
To combat the erosion of agency and moral responsibility that the Harvard Business Review research highlights, and the harmful consequences of cheating and slacking off that results, leaders need to instill a sense of fairness in monitoring procedures. And given the employee leaks to the New York Times complaining about the MyRTO tool, TikTok clearly failed to do so.
Moreover, other surveys reveal negative employee attitudes toward surveillance technology. A survey by 1E of 500 IT managers and 500 non-manager IT workers, for example, finds that 73% of IT managers said they wouldn’t feel comfortable instructing their staff to deploy productivity surveillance tech. More than a quarter of IT managers indicate an uptick in employees quitting (28%) and difficulty hiring new employees (27%) when these tools are in use. More than half of IT workers (52%) said they would turn down an otherwise desirable position if they knew the company used employee productivity surveillance technology. Three-quarters of IT workers say requiring them to deploy such software to track other employees would negatively impact their willingness to remain in their current position. In fact, 30% would begin actively applying for different jobs. In turn, a report from Morning Consult of a survey of 750 technology workers finds that at least 1 in 2 tech workers said they would not accept a new role in their field if the company used a surveillance technique.
Thus, the tech workers at TikTok are highly likely to be disengaged, demotivated, and disillusioned by the MyRTO surveillance technology. It will lead to increased attrition and loss of productivity.
Amplification of PR nightmares
Perhaps even more problematic is the own goal of doubling down on the association of TikTok with surveillance. The social media platform has been subjected to legislative grillings in Capitol Hill sessions and dangled on the precipice of national bans — largely due to apprehensions around surveillance concerns and its alleged affiliations with the Chinese government. As such, the company is already navigating a precarious PR landscape, making it particularly vulnerable to any additional reputational tarnishes.
The introduction of the MyRTO initiative exacerbates this fragile situation. Far beyond the physical badges, the program serves as a symbolic embodiment of a corporate culture that leans towards Orwellian control mechanisms over fostering an atmosphere of mutual trust and individual autonomy. The narrative now being constructed — whether intentionally or inadvertently — is one where TikTok is willing to sacrifice the organic relationships between management and workforce on the altar of hyper-surveillance and omnipresent oversight.
Moreover, in our contemporary climate, where viral information can be disseminated globally within seconds, a PR misadventure of this magnitude carries exponential risks. It’s not merely a matter of immediate negative press; the long-term ripple effects can permeate stakeholder trust, impact user growth, and even invite further regulatory scrutiny. The imbued perception of a dystopian corporate environment can be a latent liability, hindering future partnerships and tarnishing the brand in ways that are complex and multifaceted, yet cumulatively catastrophic.
So, while the MyRTO initiative might have been conceived with an eye toward enhancing the return to office mandate, its inadvertent contribution to a burgeoning narrative of corporate overreach likely outweighs any benefits the platform could hope to gain. Therefore, TikTok faces a strategic imperative to rapidly reassess its stance on employee monitoring in the interest of averting a full-blown reputational implosion.
While TikTok claims it has invested $1.5 billion in ensuring that user data is secure and confined to U.S. soil, actions speak louder than words. The surveillance measures essentially throw gasoline on an already raging fire of mistrust and skepticism. They make it increasingly difficult for TikTok to argue against the narrative that it’s a tool for “control, surveillance and manipulation.”
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In the grand scheme, the MyRTO tool might appear to be a small, internal administrative change. However, this ‘minor’ change encapsulates everything that’s potentially problematic about TikTok’s strategy and public image. The platform needs to recognize that its actions echo far beyond the confines of its offices, influencing not only its brand reputation but also the broader conversations about ethical corporate behavior and workplace culture in the 21st century.
TikTok’s deployment of MyRTO is a tactical win but a strategic loss. While it may achieve short-term compliance from employees, it erodes trust and adds another layer to the growing wall of skepticism surrounding the company. It’s a move that reflects not adaptability and forward-thinking, but rigidity and an outmoded understanding of productivity. Companies aspiring for a resilient and favorable position in the marketplace should treat this not as a model but as a cautionary tale.
As businesses pivot to new modes of work, those that embrace transparency, employee autonomy, and ethical conduct will find themselves leading the pack, as I tell client companies who I help figure out their flexible work models. Companies caught in a time warp, clinging to surveillance and control, will likely find the path ahead much more challenging.