Privacy at Work: What Are Your Rights?
By FindLaw Staff | Legally reviewed by Chris Meyers, Esq. | Last reviewed December 31, 2021
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A person has far fewer privacy rights at work than they do in their personal life but a worker is still entitled to some privacy at their job. Here are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about privacy at work. See Privacy in the Workplace: Overview for more general information.
Can my employer search my desk, office, or locker? What about my computer?
Employers can usually search an employee's workspace, including their desk, office, or lockers. The workspace technically belongs to the employer, and courts have found that employees do not have an expectation of privacy in these areas. What about purses, briefcases, and bags? Generally, an employer has the right to search your personal belongings in the workplace when there is a policy in place.
This is also the case for computers. Since the computers and networking equipment typically belong to the employer, the employer is generally entitled to monitor the use of the computer. This includes searching for files saved to the computer itself, as well as monitoring an employee's actions while using the computer (e.g., while surfing the internet).
Some employers issue laptops and mobile phones that an employee takes home and uses outside the office. This equipment is still the employer's property and employers can search the computer or phone, even if you do use it at home or occasionally use it for personal reasons.
Some states may have laws concerning searches at work, and unions may have included terms about searches during collective bargaining. Employees should always check on the laws in their state and the terms of any employment contract they may have.
Can my employer search my car?
If it's a company car, then the answer is probably yes.
If it's your personal vehicle, then probably not. If your employer believes that you have dangerous or illegal materials in your car, they should call the police rather than search the car themselves.
Can my employer read my emails or listen to my phone calls? What about text messages on a company phone?
Employees generally don't have any privacy in their emails at work. Since the email system belongs to the employer, they are allowed to monitor their employees' communications.
Employers can also generally monitor employees' phone calls for quality control purposes. However, they are supposed to cease monitoring once they are aware that the call is personal. If there is a policy in place against personal calls, the employer may be able to listen to enough of the call to determine if it is personal, and the employee may still face disciplinary action for the personal call even if the employer didn't listen to the entire call.
Some states, such as California, require that all parties on a monitored phone conversation receive notice about the monitoring. If your state has such a law, your employer is required to inform you if they plan to monitor your phone calls.
As for text messages on a company phone, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a city government's search of text messages, including personal ones, on city-provided pagers was reasonable. Given that private employers usually have much more leeway than public employers, this decision suggests that private employers can search their employee's text messages on company-provided phones.
Can my employer search me at the end of the day?
The answer to this question depends on the situation. If something was stolen, or if you work in a high-risk security area, then your employer can probably search you as long as the search isn't overly invasive. Check to see if your employee handbook contains any warning about the possibility of searches.
If your employer regularly searches employees for no good reason or singles out a particular employee for search, their actions may not be legal.
Can an employer make me submit to a polygraph (lie detector) test?
The Employee Polygraph Protection Act (EPPA) applies to most private employers and generally prevents the use of polygraph tests for pre-employment screening or during employment.
There are some exemptions from the law, however. Employers in certain security and pharmaceutical industries can ask certain job applicants to submit to a polygraph test. The EPPA also allows private firms to administer polygraph tests to employees who the employer reasonably suspects of involvement in economic crimes against the employer such as theft or embezzlement.
Can my employer drug test me?
Many people find drug tests to be particularly invasive, even if they do not use illegal drugs. This does not mean that employers do not have the ability to drug test their employees. Since employment is usually at-will, employees can certainly refuse to take a drug test. Employers can also refuse to continue employing that employee, though.
Some union contracts may have special provisions about drug tests, however, and certain states have laws on the books that limit or define the right of employers to drug test their employees. Employees concerned about drug tests should check their employment contracts and their state's employment laws.
Can an employer fire me because of my beliefs and associations?
As long as you don't disrupt the functioning of your employer's business by expressing or displaying your beliefs and associations, your employer can't fire you simply for believing certain things or associating with certain people or groups.
If you disrupt work by attempting to recruit coworkers to your organization or display offensive material, however, your employer can probably take action to stop the disruption.
Can my employer monitor my actions with security cameras?
Courts have generally upheld an employer's right to monitor their employees with security cameras so long as the monitoring is not particularly invasive. Cameras in bathrooms or dressing areas are usually not allowed.
More Questions About Workplace Privacy Rights? Talk to a Local Lawyer
Perhaps your employer just installed a new video camera near your cubicle and it just doesn't sit right with you. Maybe you have questions about whether your employer can force you to take a drug or alcohol test. Whatever the situation may be, you don't have to go searching for answers. Get your questions answered by a local employment lawyer who will know your state's laws regarding workplace privacy.
You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.
Contact a qualified employment attorney to make sure your privacy rights are protected.