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Privacy in the Workplace: Overview

An employee's right to privacy in the workplace is a controversial topic. There is an increased reliance on computers and electronic communication to do business, and technology has enabled employers to monitor virtually all workplace communications made by employees using work computers, company internet access, and company e-mail accounts.

While employees may feel that all monitoring is a violation of their privacy rights, much of it is legal. Some employee activities, including private conversations or personal items in restricted spaces, like locked desk drawers, generally receive more privacy protections. Other activities, like recreational drug use, may lead to testing for substance abuse or safety concerns. Below are common issues of employees' privacy rights in the workplace.

Internet Usage and Email

When you are using your work computer, accessing the internet at work, or communicating through your company email address, most personal privacy laws do not apply. Emails sent using company hardware or software are generally considered company property, including personal emails sent through your work email address.

In general, employers have the right to view, copy, and monitor employee email messages when there is a "legitimate business purpose," which is generally given a broad interpretation. Valid business purposes could include monitoring productivity, blocking harmful spam, or fighting intellectual property theft.

Employers also generally have the right to track internet traffic using work computers, wifi, or the company's internet service. Monitoring can include tracking websites visited by their employees, blocking employees from certain websites, or limiting the amount of time an employee may spend on a specific website.

Businesses may also use the information they've collected about employee's internet access and emails as evidence to show employee misconduct or wrongdoing in an employment discrimination or wrongful termination claim.

Phone Calls and Voicemail Messages

Employers use electronic surveillance practices, including monitoring employee phone conversations and voicemail messages, in order to keep tabs on their employees and their business operations. Generally, employers can monitor telephone calls to and from their locations, but there are legal limits.

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) places some limitations on an employer's right to monitor its employees' telephone usage at work. Under the ECPA, an employer may not monitor an employee's personal phone calls, even those made from telephones on work premises.

In general, employers can monitor phone calls when the employee is aware of and consents to the call being recorded or monitored. Electronic privacy laws also extend privacy protections to an employee's voicemail messages. Employers can face legal liability if they access, listen to, read, share, delete, or limit access to a worker's voicemail messages.

Post-Hiring Drug Testing

An employer may be able to require its employees to submit to drug screening. However, a number of states' laws limit the circumstances in which an employer may test for drugs and the methods employers can use to perform drug tests. An employer may generally test its employees for drug use if it limits its testing to:

  • Workers whose jobs carry a great deal of risk to themselves or others
  • Workers who have completed a drug rehabilitation program or are currently enrolled in such a program
  • Workers who have been involved in a work-related accident where drug use was suspected
  • Workers who are believed to have been using drugs based on physical evidence or behavior (glassy eyes, slurred speech)

Employee Privacy in the Workplace - Get Legal Help

Employees have limited rights to privacy in the workplace, but these rights are balanced against their employers' rights to monitor business operations. If you believe your employer overstepped legal boundaries in connection with your privacy rights, or if you just have questions about your right to privacy in the workplace, talk to a local employment lawyer who can clarify your rights.

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Contact a qualified employment attorney to make sure your privacy rights are protected.

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