How Much Privacy Do Employees Have At The Workplace?

How Much Privacy Do Employees Have At The Workplace?


The most straightforward answer to whether or not employees have any privacy in their workplace is that they don’t. Legally, most states in the U.S. grant employers the authority to monitor their employees by means such as audio and video recording devices, emails, website history, and text messages sent through a company network or company-owned devices.

Recent concerns about tech companies collecting personal data make it worthwhile to examine the amount of monitoring to which employers are legally entitled.

Table of Contents:

Can An Employee Be Monitored In A Workplace?

It is safe to say that employers indeed can monitor their employees in a workplace. Most companies use advanced equipment such as audio and video recording devices for surveillance purposes. For instance, using security cameras equipped with multiple high-definition microphones is a common practice in workplace premises. Employers can record audio and video in common areas for practical and security reasons. 

Legally, employers are supposed to post signage around the workplace, making it clear that they are being monitored. When employees choose to remain in their workplace with clear video and audio recording signage, they consent to be monitored.

There are limits and restrictions to installing security cameras. For example, audio and video recording in restrooms and dressing rooms may be prohibited and carry legal repercussions.

Can An Employer Be Monitored In A Workplace?

Employees may sometimes resort to recording audio when they believe that their workplace environment is toxic and need hard evidence to prove it. However, recording audio is governed by the state laws that a workplace is subjected to, and employees must understand the legal aspects of consent in their state.

Recording a conversation in which an employee is not a participant is strictly illegal and should be refrained from at all costs. Employees may choose to legally record audio if they strongly feel that they are in a toxic workplace or subjected to harassment and retaliation. They need proof to back up their statement. 

Can Employees Be Monitored Through Company Devices?

While there are clear laws that allow employers to monitor their workers during office hours through company property such as desktops or laptops, the policies are less clear regarding the usage of company devices after business hours. In simple words, it is not reasonable for employees to expect privacy when they are using devices provided by their company, even when they are at home after business hours. 

Most laptops are integrated with a webcam. The anti-theft software installed by companies is designed to take photos without the users' knowledge, which means that employers can remotely use webcams without the user being aware of them. This is a grey area in terms of the laws that govern webcam usage, as companies are protected from disclosing when they activate an employee's webcam or how often they do that unless there are some state laws in place against webcam surveillance. 

Can Employers Monitor Social Media Usage?

While employees may believe that they are free to share their opinions on social media, posting anything negative against the company, or violating the company policies online, can lead to consequences, including possible termination. 

Social media monitoring is not simply restricted to checking the use of social media while in the workplace, but monitoring what employee posts and shares, especially if the content is pertinent to the company or workplace they belong to.

Can Employers Monitor Drug Testing?

While it may seem invasive to conduct tests on its employees, workplaces are mandated to conduct periodic drug tests to ensure that their employees have a healthy lifestyle in and out of the workplace. In addition to providing that their employees are not prone to addiction, drug testing further ensures that narcotic or recreational substances do not affect the performance and productivity in a workplace.

The use of illegal controlled substances is considered a criminal offense. It might have severe implications if employees are found to possess them in person or show up in their urine, blood, or oral fluid sample. Some provisions are made about drugs that have been legalized. For instance, in states where cannabis is declared legal, some bills prevent workplaces from taking action against or discriminating against employees.

Urine is one of the most widely used specimens for a drug test in the workplace. Most of the private and public organizations might use 5 panel drug tests for screening employees and candidates. Monitoring or observed collection of a urine sample may be required if you are suspected of tampering with the specimen or in the case of an abnormal test result. Observed collection may be prohibited in some states as an unfair invasion of privacy, while in some other states, it may not be considered illegal.

The Takeaway

Employers may choose to keep an eye on employees in a workplace through various employee surveillance technologies, drug testing policies, and hiring clauses that state the extent of monitoring. However, invasive and exploitative workplace monitoring can hamper employer-employee relationships, decrease worker productivity, and enable workplace discrimination. 

Employers also need to realize that employee monitoring is a serious matter and must be approached judiciously to protect everyone involved. In this regard, transparency about what you hope to achieve with employee monitoring and its alignment with your overall business's goals is key to instilling trust and security among employees.

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