The remote work revolution has left some companies reeling, unsure how to manage employees they are no longer able physically to see, beavering away in an office. But a court in the Netherlands has ruled that one way to keep a digital eye on remote employees—demanding they keep their webcams on—isn’t acceptable.
What’s more, the Dutch judges said, a Florida company that fired one of its Netherlands-based employees for refusing to turn on their webcam will have to pay compensation, and might even have violated that person’s human rights.
The case, first reported in Tech Crunch, is one of the first of its kind to come to judgment in the post-peak-Covid landscape. It concerns Florida-based Chetu, a software and tech support company which employs about 2,600 people worldwide, according to court filings (in Dutch). The case was brought by an unnamed former Chetu employee, after the company fired the person suddenly in August 2022 for, the filings said, “insubordination” and “refusal to work.”
Prior to the dismissal, Chetu had three times asked the employee, who worked as a telemarketer from home in the Netherlands, to turn on and keep on their webcam. The employee had responded that such constant observation felt excessive and stressful.
“I don’t feel comfortable being monitored for 9 hours a day by a camera,” the employee told Chetu, according to the court filing. “This is an invasion of my privacy and makes me feel really uncomfortable. [That’s] the reason why my camera isn’t on. You can already monitor all activities on my laptop and I am sharing my screen. ”
Of course, presenteeism was always a poor proxy for work done: Any company would be better advised to monitor an employee’s productivity (or even their happiness, engagement, or team spirit), than their hours spent staring at a screen.
Widespread working from home presents companies with huge potential savings, since they may no longer need to pay for office space at all, but it also brings problems: Employees in an office might spend time on shopping sites or chatting with colleagues, but they can’t wallpaper the living room or sleep until noon instead of going to work at all. They also, probably, can’t as easily work in another job.
The webcam verdict might not affect all employees everywhere, but it does point to something much bigger than one Netherlands-specific case. The Dutch court cited a 2017 judgement from the European Court of Human Rights “that video surveillance of an employee in the workplace, be it covert or not, must be considered as a considerable intrusion into the employee’s private life,” and noted it believed that Chetu’s insistence on constant webcam use was such an intrusion.
Chetu did not respond to our request for a comment.