Most employees understand that they typically give up some privacy while at the workplace. However, most of those workers do not know to what degree their privacy rights are relinquished until they are called on the carpet for a workplace violation. They may find that their communications and actions have been under surveillance, including reading email, recording telephone conversations, reviewing voice mail, monitoring computer and internet activity and even video recording of employee actions.
As one of the most ubiquitous methods of business communication, email is frequently an issue as to privacy in the workplace. It is common for employees’ inboxes to fill up fast throughout the day, and it is common for employees to send several emails every day as part of their job duties. A few of these emails may be personal messages to and from your friends and family. You may also receive your share of unsolicited email (spam). You might forward information, a funny photo, or a good joke to a friend. Without your knowledge (because you barely looked at the email or you didn’t scroll down to look at the entire email), one of these emails contains sexual innuendo or improper language. Your friend not only gets the forwarded email, but so does your company’s IT department. The email is flagged for content and sent to your supervisor who will likely discipline or terminate you. Thinking your privacy has been violated, you find yourself on the defensive. However, much to your surprise, you find out, under federal and state law, there is little or no expectation to privacy in the workplace.
In most cases, actions taken against private employers for invasion of privacy have not been successful. Courts have held that:
- Employees have no legitimate expectation of privacy.
- Employers may have legitimate reasons for monitoring employee communications, such as:
- Employers may have to protect against computer viruses.
- Preventing workplace harassment and bullying.
- Reviewing and archiving communications in the case of lawsuits against the company.
Employees who, for a variety of reasons, take legal action against an employer are likely to find the employer’s surveillance of the employee’s communications and actions to be used against them by the employer. This would be the same information that the employer claims they are required to monitor and archive in case someone brings a lawsuit against the company.
Though privacy in the workplace should not be expected, it does not change the fact that every United States citizen has a right to privacy under the fourth amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Also, there are state laws being considered and enacted all the time. Some of these laws under consideration are in response to rapidly changing communication and surveillance technologies.
With the rapid changes in the law and modern technology, legal issues regarding privacy in the workplace have become more complex. Also, employers have been known to use your lack of expectation of privacy in the workplace to intimidate, humiliate and to shield or hide workplace harassment. If you feel your employer has crossed the line when it comes to privacy in the workplace, you will need legal expertise to determine if you have an action. You should seek out an experienced employment law firm and set up a consultation immediately.