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Employee Privacy in the Workplace

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We live in a world almost solely dependent on technology. Interconnectivity is the name of the game. The constant need to communicate with one another and be kept abreast of any and all activities of those around us seem to be a demanding driving force in our everyday lives. It has gotten to the point where the demarcation lines between what information can be made pubic, and what information should remain private about our daily lives and activities have been all but erased.

The one thing we value most as a person has now become the one thing that has been taken away from us by the technology that we hoped would give us more privacy. Privacy is now a topic for debates. Lloyd L. Rich, in his article entitled Right to Privacy in the Workplace in the Information age (1995) stated that:

            As traffic on the “information superhighway” continues to explode a number of substantive questions about the use and abuse of these information networks arises. One issue of primary concern is whether the current law provides adequate protection for the individual’s right to privacy in the workplace from threats posed by computer technology, electronic eavesdropping, video and sound recording equipment, and databases filled with personal information. What are the ramifications for an employees’ right to privacy in the workplace? Does an employer have the right to search an employee’s computer files or review the employee’s electronic mail (“E-mail”)?

            According to a recent study by the Telework Coalition (2007), there are four reasons that supports the need for employers to monitor the work of their employees who use Internet and email while doing their jobs. These four reasons are liability, discoverability, productivity and protection of trade secrets and intellectual property. It is a known fact that today’s business world is so competitive, rival companies will do anything to get ahead of the other. This is usually accomplished by purchasing trade secrets from the employees of the other company.  Business today is like a spy game and the secret agents are the employees.

Just like in espionage, one should never allow the enemy to use their own weapons against them. The only way a company can be sure that their employees are not selling them out is by having full control over their actions. Employers have to take into account that privacy has always been part of the basic rights of a human being. Through time, privacy has taken on various forms and meanings so that protecting the privacy of a person has recently become a case for courts to decide. Although protected and guaranteed under the constitution, how to protect it has become a puzzlement in this day an age.

            Everyday, billions of people across the planet regularly use, their office telephones, email accounts, Internet access and a host of other programs and platforms that make accomplishing their tasks easier. What most of the employees do not know is that the walls in their office don’t just have ears, they now have eyes too. The eyes are courtesy of the latest in surveillance gadgets and software made available to keep track of employee movements. In a review by the Duke Law and Technology Review (2001), the following statement was made:

            Employers often monitor employee telephone calls and some companies also record the time each employee spends on bathroom breaks. One employer even “places a device in employees’ chairs to measure worker ‘wiggling,’ presumably because more wiggling means less working.”

            I find this to be an overkill method of controlling the employee’s behavior. It is highly apparent that the line between worker efficiency and worker privacy must be drawn. Something must be done to protect the employee rights and update the laws that have fallen behind the times.

            USA Today, in their column CyberSpeak (October 11, 2001) mentioned that;

           A recent survey by the American Management Association shows that about 78% of companies in the U.S. monitor their employees in some way. Employee Internet use is monitored by 63% of employers; 47% store and review employee e-mail messages; 15% view employees by video; 12% review and record phone messages; and 8% review voice-mail messages.

            Trust is a two way street so, if they are looking to catch an employee doing something wrong, they just may find what they are looking for but then eventually find out they were mistaken. It is because the employers do not have any set boundaries that they often do not realize when they have violated an employee’s right to privacy already.

            Aside from the four basic reasons employers have for monitoring their employee’s work movements, one must see the other factors that relate to the need for employee monitoring. It is believed that over 75 percent of companies monitor Internet usage during work hours. One of the most valid reasons is that after September 11, employers want to make sure that their employees are not planning anything criminal using company equipment and time that could be detrimental to the existence of the company and security of the country in general.

            Yet, for all of the valid reasons presented before me in support of Employers doing electronic surveillance on their employees, we must still recognize that certain Employee Rights are being violated in the process. I refer you to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA) which clearly does not allow companies and employers to intentionally intercept any wire, oral or electronic communication. It also does not allow the unauthorized access of stored communications.

            The law does however allow surveillance of employees that covered by such instances such as business-related phone calls, monitoring of employee communications with prior consent of the employee, and retrieval and access to stored email messages on the company server.

            After having done a thorough research ad reading as much pertinent information I can about this situation, I have come to the conclusion that a balance must be reached between the needs of both the employer and the employees. In order to avoid costly lawsuits on both sides stemming from violation of privacy laws, both parties should instead work together in order to come up with acceptable policies regarding the rights of the employee within the workplace. This should be done with the advice of legal experts in order to make sure that neither party is short changed in the process. I believe that it is of vital importance for the employees to know which activities, why, when, and how, they are being monitored. This is also so that employee’s will know not to step out of bounds during work hours and within the workplace.

            The highly fast paced advancements in technology have left the issue of privacy in the workplace open to interpretation. It is a very delicate yet vital area of human rights. Currently, the privacy laws in place are not sufficient enough to protect an employee’s privacy while working. Although technology has made it easier to get work done, it has also altered the way employees are treated and trusted to work in the office. The decision as to what should encompass surveillance in the workplace and how much is the problem faced by most employers today as the privacy lawsuits mount in our courts.

As the employers indiscriminately monitor their employee movements, so do they run the high risk of being sued by employees for invasion of privacy. Upon further research, one shall see that certain states have taken the extra effort to try and protect the workers from electronic monitoring. State Assemblies such as those in California have tried to pass bills protecting employees from electronic monitoring. Unfortunately, bills such as California’s S.B. 147 tried to protect the electronic privacy of the employees but got vetoed by the governor.

            As with regards to the employees, it is important for them to understand that there are no really effective laws around that will protect them from being monitored by their employers. Most employers seem to have become tolerant of personal use of office equipment provided that it does not affect the productivity of the employee. This is not to say that the employee will be exempted from surveillance while working. So, in such cases, the employee must make sure to accomplish his task on time and without hindrances.

            In conclusion, I would like to say that employee privacy in the workplace can best be monitored and protected with the cooperation of both parties. It is important to note that employees must however be aware that any abuse on the part of their employer while doing surveillance on them is violation of federal and state statutes. As the laws of the various states stand today, employee privacy will end up being a choice debate topic for decades to come.

Works Cited

Eric J. Sinrod. October 18, 2001. Electronic Surveillance in the Workplace. USAToday. Retrieved January 22,2007 from http://www.usatoday.com/tech/columnist/2001/10/18/sinrod.htm

Corey A. Ciocchetti. August 25, 2001. Monitoring Employee E-mail: Efficient Workplaces vs. Employee Privacy. Duke Law and Technology Review. Retrieved January 22, 2007 from http://www.law.duke.edu/journals/dltr/articles/2001dltr0026.html

Lloyd L. Rich. 1995. Right to Privacy in the Workplace in the Information Age. Law Office or Lloyd L. Rich. Retrieved January 23, 2007 from http://www.publaw.com/privacy.html

Rodney H. Glover. April 2002. Privacy in the Workplace – Complex Issues for Employers. The Telework Coalition. Retrieved January 24, 2007 from http://www.telcoa.org/id61.htm

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