Can an employee have an expectation of privacy in the workplace?

March 10, 2016

Topics: Privacy in the Workplace

We’re all familiar with the disclaimer that we hear when speaking to a customer service department – that our call may be recorded or monitored for quality assurance.  As a customer, we may want a vendor to record calls in order to keep a record of our complaints.  But as employees, we may not want our employers listening to our calls or reading our emails.  So, can employees expect privacy in the workplace?  The answer, more often than not, is no.

Employers are permitted to search employees’ workspaces because the workspaces are owned by the employer.  This includes offices, desks and, if applicable, a company-owned car.

Employers also have the right to track and monitor employee’s use of company equipment.  The computer equipment and email system, like the workspace, belongs to the employer.   Employers are permitted to block employees’ internet access and limit the sites an employee can visit to those related to work.  Employers also are permitted to access employee’s emails, even personal ones that went through the employers’ computer system, although they might be required to have a valid business reason to do so.  Employers may also be permitted to track employees’ text messages on a company-owned phone. Employees should not have any expectation of privacy when they use company equipment to access the internet, social media or personal emails.

Employers should be aware that some states require employers to notify employees that they are tracking and monitoring employees’ internet use and emails.  And, there may be a need to get written consent.

Employers are also permitted to track and monitor employees’ business calls.  Federal law, however, restricts employers from monitoring their employees’ personal calls without permission.  This is the case even if the employee used a company phone.  Federal law also protects employees’ voicemail messages at work.

Employers are permitted to monitory employees by using surveillance cameras, with exceptions for locker rooms and bathrooms.

Finally, employers may require their employees to submit to drug testing, within limits set by state laws.

Employees generally should have no expectation of privacy with regard to actions taken related to work, or using work equipment.  Employers, however, would be prudent to establish policies expressly stating that such is the cases and how employee activities may be monitored, so there can be no question regarding what could be done.