The Berlin Data Protection Authority has started to examine a software from the fashion retailer Zalando to evaluate its own employees. The company had the authority in the past week even referred to the Zonar program, said a spokesman for the authorities. Previously, the Süddeutsche Zeitung ( SZ ) reported on it. As a result, the agency sends employees to the company for examination.

The union ver.di had criticized the software in the last week as "anti-worker" and data protection law problematic. Zonar puts a strain on the working atmosphere and leads to permanent control of wages and arbitrary wages. Ver.di board member Stefanie Nutzberger accused the group in the SZ of triggering emotional stress on the employees and positioning them against each other.

Verdi relied on a two-year investigation by the union-friendly Hans Böckler Foundation. According to the study, Zonar is a "socio-technical system for establishing and legitimizing inequality". The company uses the software to make wages too low and create a "climate of fear," write the study authors from the Humboldt University Berlin. So anonymous employees are cited, who spoke of a permanent monitoring using "Stasi methods".

The constant pressure for mutual feedback enables executives to enforce a favorable assessment of individual employees, which has an effect on their wages but is intransparent in their justification. For example, classifying employees into performance groups such as "outstanding," "strong," and "capable of improvement" would be followed by arbitrary decisions, systematically preventing employees from being classified in the top category. This favors "kungling" among executives and prevents wage increases. The legality of the method also challenged employees who told the study authors that they had never agreed to store their data in the system.

Zalando rejected the results presented in the study. The investigation was flawed and not representative. According to the company, 5,000 of the 14,000 employees use the software, while data protection requirements are complied with. Zonar complies with the legal requirements according to the General Data Protection Regulation (DSGVO). Zonar is a not unusual form of so-called 360-degree feedback. This will ensure that votes are heard by colleagues in the assessment of employees - a company according to company information in many industries usual approach, as a spokeswoman said.

Politicians demand ban on surveillance software

According to data protectionists from Berlin, the testing of the software should be completed in the coming year. Until then, the authority has recommended, according to SZ Group to stop the use of Zonar. If the program actually contradicts the GDPR, its use can be prohibited.

Politicians from various parties criticized Zalando in the SZ for using the software. For example, SPD party presidential candidate Norbert Walter-Borjans said programs like Zonar would foster fear of digitization, which offers tremendous opportunities for better work, but is used to instrumentalise people. Dietmar Bartsch, leader of the Left in the Bundestag, said Zonar awaken "Orwellian memories" and must be banned. It is a business model that relies on distrust and control.

A ban also demanded the Green MEP Beate Müller-Gemmeke. A separate law on data protection of employees and greater participation rights for works councils in terms of data protection is necessary. The use of modern technologies to monitor employees is "the opposite of progress".

Global trend for employee monitoring

Feedback programs like Zonar are widely used by digital corporations. The US online retailer Amazon uses a similar software called the "Anytime Feedback Tool", which has also been described by Group employees as an instrument of systematic peer pressure. The ability to be classified as a "low performer" at all times leads to intense psychological pressure on employees, a New York Times report suggested.

According to study authors, Internet companies such as Amazon and Zalando are the "vanguard" of a development in which intransparent algorithms, under the pretext of employee ownership, enable permanent, performance-pressure monitoring of employees. The trend in terms of data protection and labor law is favored by the fact that it reflects the culture of product ratings, which has long been established in online retailing, and which is hard to imagine without modern consumer behavior.