The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) claims that many of our rights are poorly protected when we enter the workplace. In fact, the ACLU claims that privacy issues in the workplace are the number one complaint that they receive from people all around the country.
Size of the Problem
A study that polled over 500 companies around the US found that half of employers disciplined their employees at some point for inappropriate use of the internet.
Inappropriate use of the internet could include doling out threats to a superior at work, putting off work and chatting with friends online or watching explicit material (e.g., pornography) instead of working.
These kinds of illicit workplace activities are detected using proxy servers and standard web monitoring.
Is Workplace Surveillance Legal?
So what does the law say with respect to workplace surveillance? Many employers understandably want to have a video recording of the workplace just in case a theft or outbreak occurs during work hours. Some bosses, however, predictably use these recordings to snoop on their employees and make sure they’re doing what’s expected of them. Is this legal?
As far as this kind of video recording goes, it should be legal. As long as the employer has a reasonable need to film (e.g., catch theft), and the area that’s being filmed is public and employees know that they’re being filmed, then the surveillance is likely within the bounds of the law.
Although state laws about video surveillance in the workplace vary, the courts usually weigh the need of the employer to conduct the surveillance against the employee’s privacy expectations. Having said that, employers are typically not allowed to film union meetings in any context.
Workplace Privacy and E-Mails
Many employees want to know if their boss has the legal right to monitor their e-mails. If the e-mail is sent from work, then it’s typically legal for your boss to read it. The catch is that the employer must have a legitimate business rationale behind looking at his employee’s emails.
You actually have fewer genuine rights in the workplace than you do in your private life. The reasoning behind having fewer rights in the workplace works out like this in practice – the workplace is owned by the employer and the employee, therefore, does not have the expectation of privacy in these employer-owned areas.
Just as an employer can legally rifle through your work desk or locker, an employer can check up on the files that you’ve downloaded onto your hard drive at work or look at your work computer’s internet browsing history. The employer typically owns the computer, hardware and networking devices at the workplace, so it’s the employer’s legal right to search your work computer.
Electronic Communications Privacy Act
Employers are understandably concerned with their employees’ productivity, bandwidth use or possible infringement of the company’s proprietary data.
Employers are also concerned with things like malware and viruses getting onto the work network. For all of these reasons, and the fact that your boss might share some liability if you make threats or engage in sexual harassment via email from a work computer, your boss probably monitors your search and download history.
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act says that a computer furnished by the employer, and used by employees in the workplace, remains the employer’s property. This means that employers are generally legally allowed to search your computer or internet usage whenever they want. Should you believe your privacy has been unfairly breached, you may wish to retain the services of an employment lawyer.
To date, only Delaware and Connecticut force employers to tell employees when their emails are being looked at by a superior.