Avatars in the Workplace: A Legal and Ethical Minefield?

Avatars in the Workplace: A Legal and Ethical Minefield?

The new movie Avatar has generated a lot of excitement over what it would be like to go to work and control a body other than your own, all in a virtual, “safe” world. But as reported by Stanford University in the Stanford Report, avatars have already been widely used in the video game industry and now they’re gaining popularity in the workplace.

According to the Stanford Report, “thousands of employees at companies like IBM, Cisco, SAP and Boeing have been using avatars to interact with colleagues and customers around the world” during the last three years.

Professor Byron Reeves, Communications, who was interviewed by the Stanford Report, says avatars are (1) practical for today’s workplace when employees are spread out all over the physical world, (2) easy to use (there’s a quick learning curve), and (3) fun to manipulate.

In reading this Stanford Report article, the following points jumped out at me (my thoughts are in parentheses):

  • Will more & more employers use avatars to keep bored employees engaged in their jobs and to foster team spirit? (If your employees are bored, I think “avataring” them is only a temporary fix.)
  • Will some employees use their avatars to harass other avatars? (Many people just don’t get it that, even in a virtual world, you can still get into trouble for things you do in the real world.)
  • Is it ethical for employees to portray themselves as avatars that are completely different from how they look in real life in order to get an edge with a customer or other work group in another part of the country or the world? (Are avatars a discrimination lawsuit waiting to happen?)
  • Will we see a rise in repetitive stress injuries among workers? (But to what extent was the employee’s injury actually avatar-induced? Everyone is using cell phones, iPhones, Wii games, etc. when they’re not at work.)
  • Professor Reeves says “fun is not the opposite of work”. (To some extent, Professor Reeves is right about that one. As Christopher Boggs of MyNewMarkets.com once put it, “forced fun” by employers can bring employee injuries into the course and scope of employment under the recreational activity doctrine for workers’ compensation.)