Biometric Technologies Help Manage Employees

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How are new trends in biometric technology affecting employment?

David McDonald wanted a better timekeeping system to track the work hours of security guards in his company, Fresno County Private Security. Each day supervisors were required to meet the guards at client sites throughout central California before they could begin work. The manual, paper-based process was far from optimal. 

“We only have so many supervisors, and they can’t always be at the sites when the guards arrive on duty to check them in,” said McDonald, director of operations at the Fresno-based security firm. “We wanted a way for guards to clock themselves in more efficiently.”

McDonald turned to new biometric technology from vendor Asure Software of Austin, Texas, that uses facial recognition and GPS tracking so workers can punch in by taking photos of themselves on mobile devices like smartphones or tablets. The software, called GeoPunch, uses algorithms to automatically verify an employee’s identity when those photos are transmitted to Asure’s servers. That allows guards to clock in by themselves from the field and supervisors to confirm they are where they’re supposed to be, at the right time.

The technology also eliminates the problem of “buddy punching”—when absent employees have colleagues fraudulently clock in for them. Managers using the technology also can view transmitted photos to ensure that employees in the field are appropriately groomed and dressed for jobs.

Fresno Security workers use their own or company-supplied mobile devices to take and transmit photos. The system allows for use of “dumb” phones as well as smart ones, the former enabling photo transmission via text capabilities.

“Our security guards can clock in from their posts, and we know they aren’t doing it from their homes or other locations because of the GPS feature,” McDonald said. “It creates more efficient timekeeping overall and makes our guards even more accountable than they already are.”

What’s more, the technology eliminates problems caused by employees not turning in paper time sheets at the end of pay periods, he added. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), if all time sheets aren’t collected within a designated pay period, companies still have to estimate the number of hours employees worked, which requires additional time from supervisors or HR staff. Wage-payment laws require businesses to pay their employees on scheduled paydays for all hours they’ve worked. Someone forgetting to turn in a time sheet doesn’t create an exception to these laws.

“With the timekeeping now being electronic, all our guards have to do is send photos in and their time is logged online, meaning we no longer need paper time sheets,” McDonald explained. Another benefit is his staff doesn’t have to decipher handwritten timecards or do onerous data entry.

Biometrics Gain Steam

While new biometric technologies haven’t received as much buzz as cloud or social media applications, more organizations are employing them to improve timekeeping processes, to authenticate user identity on corporate networks and to enhance building security. Joining facial recognition as maturing biometric tools are fingerprinting, iris scans and voice recognition technologies.

In research firm Gartner’s 2013 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies report, which uses a five-stage continuum to gauge the progress new technologies have made toward delivering sustained productivity or efficiency gains in the workplace, biometric authentication systems landed between stages four and five on the maturity scale. That means the study found that biometrics are more evolved and delivering more real-world value to organizations than even “big data” and cloud-computing technologies.

“With the meteoric rise of smartphones, tablets and the accompanying mobile apps for everything from online banking to shopping and travel, there is a strong need for much greater level of security and accountability,” wrote Andras Cser, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., in a September 2013 report on the use of biometrics with mobile phones. That need also comes from businesses that are “desperate to prevent fraud, privacy abuses and theft of users’ personal information,” Cser added.

Such technology can be beneficial on multiple fronts to companies with growing mobile workforces, with timekeeping being among HR’s biggest uses. MiChele Starling, manager of human resources at InnVision & Shelter Network (IVSN), a nonprofit dedicated to helping end homelessness in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley, said her organization is implementing facial recognition technology to modernize its timekeeping system. IVSN’s old system relied on handwritten timecards and spreadsheets. The nonprofit’s employees will now use mobile devices to take and transmit photos of themselves as a means of tracking their work hours.

Many of IVSN’s hourly employees work in field locations, such as homeless shelters, and the new system will bring more accuracy and accountability to timekeeping, Starling said. “It will help our managers see that the people punching in are who they’re supposed to be and are located where they are supposed to be, which keeps the integrity in the system and improves the efficiency of timekeeping.”

Given that IVSN is largely funded by grants, it’s vital that it have accurate records of spending and allocating its dollars, Starling said. “The real-time reporting in the system allows our managers to use widgets on their computer screens to track worker hours and see how much time is being spent on each project—data which can be helpful for future grant renewals.”

Privacy Concerns?

Use of biometric technologies like facial recognition or fingerprinting can bring up privacy and other legal issues. Employment attorneys say most of the danger of facial recognition lies in using the tool for hiring or background checks, as allegations of discrimination based on race, gender or age could be tied to use of facial images.

Employers have long used photos for things like ID badges, but they should carefully consider the online use, storage or transmission of employee photos, cautioned C.R. Wright, a partner in the Atlanta office of law firm Fisher & Phillips LLC.

“It’s a developing area of the law,” Wright said, “but much more problematic if facial recognition technology is used in any way for hiring purposes or background checks. There are a host of issues here, some favorable to the employer and some against. But more companies are moving to some form of these biometric technologies for timekeeping and to make their facilities more secure.”

If a company uses facial recognition to permit access into a building but uses a different method for timekeeping, it may be susceptible to employee claims of improper payment, Wright noted. “If the facial-recognition records show employees were in the building 30 minutes prior to clocking in for work, employees might be able to claim they were doing some work preshift in that time.”

Wright said invasion-of-privacy allegations have also been tied to employers’ GPS tracking of workers, and there are some federal as well as private facilities that won’t allow individuals to bring camera-capable phones onto the premises. These are all important issues to consider as biometric technologies enter the mainstream of corporate life, he said.

Dave Zielinski is a freelance writer and an editor in Minneapolis.