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Privacy in the Workplace: Overview

An employee's right to privacy in the workplace is an increasingly controversial legal topic, especially in an age of increased reliance on computers and electronic mail to do business. Technology has enabled employers to monitor virtually all workplace communications made by employees using computers -- including use of the Internet and company e-mail. While employees may feel that this monitoring is a violation of their privacy rights, it is usually allowed under the law.  Other employee activities (such as private conversations) and certain physical spaces in the workplace (like locked desk drawers) receive more privacy protections, while specific activities like drug use may lead to testing for substance abuse. Below is a discussion of employees' privacy rights in the workplace.

Internet Usage and Email  

An employee's activities while using an employer's computer system are largely unprotected by personal privacy laws. Emails are considered to be company property if they are sent using the company's computer system. Employers generally have the right to monitor and view employee email, so long as they have a valid business purpose for doing so. Many employers now have email systems that copy all email messages as they pass through the system to check for productivity, illegal use, and other issues. Emails are frequently being used as evidence during trial to prove employee misconduct or wrongdoing.

In addition, employers have the right to track the websites visited by their employees, to block employees from visiting specific Internet sites, or to limit the amount of time an employee may spend on a specific website.

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 Electronics Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) places some limitations on an employer's right to monitor its employees' telephone usage at work. Under the Act, an employer may not monitor an employee's personal phone calls, even those made from telephones on work premises. An employer may monitor a personal call only if an employee knows the particular call is being monitored and consents to it. The ECPA also provides protection for an employee's voicemail messages at work. Employers face legal liability if they read, disclose, delete, or prevent access to an employee'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 they may use to perform such 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 whom management believe have been using drugs based on physical evidence or behavior (glassy eyes, slurred speech).

Employee Privacy in the Workplace - Getting Legal Help

Employees have clear and specific rights to privacy in the workplace, but these rights are balanced against their employers' privileges to monitor their business operations. If you are an employee who believes that your employer may have overstepped legal boundaries in connection with your privacy rights, or if you just have questions about your right to privacy in the workplace, contact an experienced employee rights attorney to discuss your situation.

Next Steps
Contact a qualified employment attorney to make sure
your privacy rights are protected.
(e.g., Chicago, IL or 60611)

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