H&M fined $41M for tracking workers’ personal lives using company database

H&M has been fined more than $41 million for allegedly tracking hundreds of employees’ personal lives on a company database.

Managers at the Swedish retailer’s customer service center in Nuremberg kept meticulous notes on workers’ vacations, illnesses, religious beliefs and family problems starting in at least 2014, according to the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, a German privacy watchdog.

Those notes, based on workplace meetings and one-on-one conversations, were used to evaluate staffers’ work performance and make decisions about their “employment relationship,” regulators said Thursday, calling H&M’s practices a “particularly intensive interference” with its employees’ rights.

The details supervisors recorded were sometimes visible to as many as 50 other managers, officials said. But a “configuration error” made the data accessible company-wide for a few hours in October 2019, an incident that alerted regulators to H&M’s practices, according to the watchdog.

Johannes Caspar, the data protection commissioner, said the surveillance showed a “serious disregard” for the workers’ data privacy. The 35.2 million-euro fine his office ordered H&M to pay is the second-largest issued so far under the European Union’s data protection laws that took effect in 2018, according to Forbes.

“The amount of the fine imposed is accordingly appropriate and suitable to deter companies from violating the privacy of their employees,” Caspar said in a statement.

H&M — which has about 179,000 employees worldwide — said it will “carefully” review the watchdog’s decision and pledged to pay “financial compensation” to anyone who worked at the Nuremberg center for at least a month since May 2018.

The Stockholm-based company says it has taken several steps to protect its workers’ data privacy, including changing the management personnel at the service center and providing additional training for leaders.

“The incident revealed practices for processing employees’ personal data that were not in line with H&M’s guidelines and instructions,” the fashion giant said in a statement. “H&M takes full responsibility and wishes to make an unreserved apology to the employees at the service centre in Nuremberg.”

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