Professional services giants rule out 'employee micro-chipping'

19 November 2018 Authored by Consultancy.uk

Reports circulated by the British press have prompted the professional services industry to issue a swift rebuttal of suggestions they would be part of a push for employers to micro-chip their staff in the UK. Three members of the Big Four said they had no plans to engage with such technology, while the fourth has previously said it has never encountered any demand for it.

At the start of November, the Daily Telegraph ran an exclusive story declaring “British businesses planning to implant microchips in staff.” The paper also reported that Biohax, a Swedish firm that provides £150 digital implants, was in talks with major businesses across the UK, including a financial services firm which, while un-named, it claimed has “hundreds of thousands of employees”. While this kind of story might once have been the preserve of dystopian science fiction films or the hyperactive imaginations of conspiracy bloggers, technology and its availability have evolved to such a stage where such allegations require formal investigation, even if they are quickly proven to be overblown.  

Just last year, Michael Chui, a Partner with the McKinsey Global Institute who leads its research on the impact of long-term technology trends, told the Washington Post that while there is “a broad awareness for the technical ability for this to happen,” at that time there was “zero interest in actually doing it.” However, Biohax and similar providers were, in fact, making inroads across multiple markets, albeit small ones.

Professional services giants rule out 'employee micro-chipping'

As reported by the MIT Technology Review, Three Square Market – a technology company that provides self-service mini-markets to hospitals, hotels, and company break room – soon became one of the first US customers of employee micro-chipping technology. Its headquarters in River Falls, Wisconsin, saw 50 employees volunteer for chips in their hands in August 2017. A year on, 80 have them. According to Patrick McMullan, the firm’s President, the idea came to him during a business trip to Sweden – where some people are getting subcutaneous microchips to do things like enter secure buildings or book train tickets. Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, UK firm BioTeq, also offers similar implants to businesses and individuals. At time of writing it has already fitted 150 implants in the UK.

The uses of micro-chipping are far from universally benign, however. While they might be sold to staff on the basis they will make their lives easier, or mundane tasks quicker, ethical and privacy issues regarding the technology remain. In response to The Telegraph's report, this saw the unlikely bedfellows of the Trade Unions Congress and the Confederation of British Industry both issue statements expressing concerns about the allegedly Orwellian nature of employee micro-chipping.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said, “We know workers are already concerned that some employers are using tech to control and micromanage, whittling away their staff’s right to privacy… Micro-chipping would give bosses even more power and control over their workers. There are obvious risks involved, and employers must not brush them aside, or pressure staff into being chipped.”

Meanwhile, a CBI spokesperson said, “While technology is changing the way we work, this makes for distinctly uncomfortable reading. Firms should be concentrating on rather more immediate priorities and focusing on engaging their employees.”

“Under no circumstances”

The suggestion that a top financial services firm might be in talks to implement micro-chipping also provoked consternation among the consulting world, with a number of top firms keen to state that they were not the one pursuing the matter. According to The Guardian, this saw three of the Big Four auditing and advisory firms – who might broadly fit Biohax’s description of a firm with hundreds of thousands of staff – each offer rebuttals.

KPMG told the UK daily paper that it was not planning to micro-chip its employees and “would under no circumstances consider doing so.” At the same time, EY and PwC issued similar statements. While Deloitte declined to comment, this may have been because the firm was unwilling to lend the story further credence. At the same time, with its key competitors having all declined, and Deloitte having to compete in a tightening UK talent market, it would be reasonable to conclude that the firm is unlikely to forge ahead with such a contentious or unpopular measure.

Josh Bersin, who leads an HR research unit at Deloitte in the US, told the Washington Post in 2017 that while wearable devices have become more common, particularly among manufacturing employees or drivers, big employers still find chips unpalatable, adding that he had encountered no client requests for it. He explained, “For lots of big companies, just the idea of a smart badge is scary enough,” while asking employees to put something inside their bodies is "a big leap.”

For now, at least, it does seem as though the report initially circulated by the Telegraph can be dismissed as having jumped the gun. However, it has highlighted an important debate, which many companies and employees in the not-so-distant future may well have to face, and as is the case, the consulting industry will undoubtedly have a role to play.

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