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Privacy at Work: Employee FAQ

Privacy at Work: What Are Your Rights?

Employee privacy rights are a critical part of workplace policy. Employers have the right to oversee the workplace as closely as they see fit. At the same time, employees have privacy rights that are guaranteed by law. Employees have fewer rights at work than off the job, but they have some privacy protections.

Your employer's company policy defines the rights you have on the job. Your employer must let you know if you're being monitored. Federal law limits what employers can do with employee information. This article examines what is allowable in the workplace and what is an invasion of privacy. It addresses the following questions:

See FindLaw's Privacy in the Workplace: Overview for more information.

Can my employer search my desk, office, or locker?

In most cases, employers can search an employee's workspace. Desks, lockers, and private offices belong to the employer. Employees don't have an expectation of privacy in their business workspace.

Employers must inform employees that their personal spaces at work may be subject to search at any time. In some states, such as California, employers must get voluntary consent before searching.

Can my employer search my purse or backpack?

Employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their personal belongings. Your employer can't search your purse, briefcase, or backpack without your knowledge and consent. If your bag is in your desk when your employer searches it, your employer can look into the bag if it's open. Your employer may not open your bag without probable cause.

Employers may have a policy of conducting exit searches of employee bags for contraband. Employees must know of this policy before any searches begin.

Can my employer search my computer?

Computers and networking equipment belong to the employer. The employer can monitor and limit their use. This includes searching files saved to the computer and monitoring an employee's actions while using the computer.

Employers may use monitoring software such as keystroke loggers to track their employees' internet use. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) limits what employers may monitor and keep. Employers may read and retain all company emails. Business emails should contain a notice of retention.

Your employer is equally responsible for protecting your computer data. The same privacy laws that protect customer data also safeguard employee data. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) limits access to your medical records. Other laws protect the release of your confidential information without your consent.

Can my employer search my car?

Employers may search company vehicles like any other company property. You have no expectation of privacy in a company vehicle.

Your personal vehicle is a different matter. Your employer must have probable cause to search inside your car, like your personal bag or purse. The amount of probable cause needed depends on where you park your vehicle. For instance, if your car is on a public street, your employer has less control over it than if you park in a company parking structure.

Employers can't require workers to place GPS tracking devices in their own cars. Even rideshare drivers and others using their own vehicles aren't monitored without employee consent. Company vehicles can have tracking devices and interior and exterior cameras for monitoring purposes.

Can my employer listen to my phone calls? What about text messages?

No federal or state law protects employees' communications on business phones. Employers can monitor phone calls for quality control and security purposes. In some states, such as California, the employee and caller must know if the employer monitors phone calls.

State and federal laws protect text messages and personal calls on your own phone. Your employer would need to show a legitimate business purpose for needing to see your private communications.

Can my employer search me at the end of the day?

Exit searches of bags and sometimes outer clothing, like coats, are legal if:

  • Your employer has notified all employees of the policy
  • The employer has a legitimate business purpose for the search
  • The search does not violate any individual's civil rights

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from making discriminatory business decisions. That means making decisions based on workers' race, religion, gender, national origin, age, or sexual preference. If an employer only searches men or only searches Black employees, this violates employees' rights and is an illegal search.

Intrusive searches, such as pat-downs or other physical searches, are highly suspect. Employers should have law enforcement involved if a situation requires a physical search.

Can an employer make me take a lie detector test?

The Employee Polygraph Protection Act (EPPA) applies to most private employers. In general, the EPPA prevents using polygraph tests for pre-employment screening or during employment.

There are some exceptions to the law. Employers in certain security and pharmaceutical industries can ask applicants to submit to a polygraph test. The EPPA also allows private firms to administer polygraph tests to employees if the employer reasonably suspects them of involvement in economic crimes against the employer, such as theft or embezzlement.

Can my employer drug test me?

Drug tests are an area constantly in flux. Currently, a majority of states require prospective employers to advise job applicants of their drug testing policy or make a conditional job offer before any pre-employment drug test.

Federal law permits private companies to have their own company drug policies. Drug testing is allowed, provided employees know about the policy in advance. Some "safety-sensitive" positions can conduct random tests.

Some states, such as California, have recently changed their laws about drug testing for marijuana. You should seek legal advice if your employer plans to test for illegal narcotics and you use recreational or medical cannabis.

Can an employer fire me because of my beliefs and associations?

It depends on how fervent you are in exercising your beliefs. The First Amendment right to freedom of association doesn't necessarily follow you into the office. Employers may fire "at-will" employees for any reason or no reason. If your exercise of belief is too disruptive, your employer may ask you to leave.

If your employer fires you because of your membership in a particular religion or other protected class-related organization, you may have grounds for a wrongful termination suit. This area of employment law requires legal assistance. You must report it to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Can my employer watch my actions with security cameras?

Video surveillance of employees has always been a matter of debate. There are no federal laws about the monitoring of employees other than the employee privacy laws already discussed. There are places where employers can't use video cameras or other monitoring devices, such as:

  • Bathrooms
  • Break rooms
  • Locker and changing rooms
  • Employee break areas

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) prohibits employers from monitoring union meetings or union activity discussions.

Questions About Workplace Privacy Rights? Contact a Lawyer

Privacy issues are a problem in the modern workplace. If you have concerns about workplace surveillance or drug testing, talk to an employment law attorney in your area. They can answer questions about state laws regarding workplace privacy.

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