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Why Your Employer Is Spying on You—And Why That Might Be Okay

Ever get the feeling someone’s watching every move you make at work? If so, you may be right.

Well over half of big companies, in more than a dozen industries, now use some form of technology to monitor employees’ daily movements, actions, and even state of mind. The disquieting news: Only about one in three are “very confident” they’re collecting and using workplace data “responsibly.”

Those findings come from a fascinating report Accenture unveiled at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this week. Based in part on a worldwide survey of 1,400 C-suite executives and 10,000 workers, the study notes that algorithms can now gather massive amounts of real-time data on every imaginable aspect of what you do all day, including where you’re doing it, with whom, and how efficiently (or not). Executives seem confident that flood of information can be winnowed down into valuable insights about precisely how and where to step up company performance. About three-quarters told Accenture’s researchers they expect their high-tech snooping to help “grow the business” (77%) and “unlock the full potential of people” (74%).

Employees, though, are far more ambivalent—no big surprise, given the recent outcry about privacy on Facebook and elsewhere. Workers brought up a range of worries, from fears that detailed workplace data might be used to “treat me more as a unit of production than as an individual human” (59%) to misgivings over whether “my employer will use newly collected data on me or my work as a form of punishment” (55%).

At the same time, consider this: A huge majority—92%—also say they don’t mind being spied upon, as long as they’re convinced the information will be used to help them. Data-based feedback would be especially welcome if, for example, it offered “suggestions on how to optimize my time,” said 79% of employees in the survey, or somehow improved “my relationships and communications with others” (77%). More than four in five (82%) think “pay, promotions, and appraisal decisions” would be more accurate and less beset by personal bias if these were less subjective and more based on hard data.

That 92% overall acceptance rate “was much higher than I expected,” notes Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and human resources officer at Accenture, who co-wrote the study. A more troubling statistic, by her lights, is that “two-thirds of companies are already using employee data, but only one-third are confident they’re doing it responsibly.”

The report defines “responsible” in detail, with short case studies and an explicit list of dos and don’ts, but a close look suggests that lots of employers just haven’t gotten the memo. For instance, Accenture recommends telling employees up front exactly what is being measured and why, and getting their consent (with, in some cases, the chance to opt out). Yet only about one-third (32%) of the employees in the survey said they understand how their employers are extracting and using workplace data, or ever consented to it, and 55% of companies admit they haven’t asked for anyone’s permission. Or think about this: 72% of executives paid lip service to the idea of calling on ethicists to “evaluate the impact of workplace technology and data on employees and society.” Yet only 15% have done that.

“This is all about trust, and creating a culture of trust,” says Shook. If that sounds a little too New Age-y, it’s worth noting that plenty of other research has shown that people who trust you to use your powers for good, not evil, tend to bring their ‘A’ game. That in turn, Shook adds, “unlocks enormous economic benefits.”

Apparently so. Accenture’s team used an array of sophisticated analytical tools, including econometric modeling, to put a dollar figure on workers’ trust, and on the loss of it. Employers who take a “responsible” approach to employee data collection, it seems, could see revenue growth that is 12.5% higher than competitors’. “Globally, $3.1 trillion of future revenue growth is at stake for large companies,” the study says.

The ability to track and analyze everything we do at work is still so new, and evolving so fast, that it’s still unclear what impact it could have on, for instance, recruiting top talent, or increasing diversity, or even just helping people get better at their jobs. But for now, given 9 in 10 employees’ willingness to believe that Big Brother is essentially benevolent, it’s up to smart companies not to blow it.

Anne Fisher is a career expert and advice columnist who writes “Work It Out,” Fortune’s guide to working and living in the 21st century. Each week, she’ll answer your most challenging career questions. Have one? Ask her on Twitter or email her at