Privacy in the Workplace

Privacy in the Workplace


An employee’s right to privacy in the workplace is a legal issue increasingly controversial, in particular with the increasing reliance on computers and email to do business. The technology has enabled employers to monitor virtually all communications of employees in the workplace using computers, including use of the Internet and e-mail of the company. While employees may feel that this monitoring is a violation of their right to privacy, in general is protected by law.

Other activities of the employees (such as private conversations) and certain physical spaces in the workplace (such as the drawers under the key desk) receive more privacy protections, while specific activities, such as drug use, may have as a consequence the implementation of testing to detect the abuse of substances. Below we discuss the right to privacy of employees in the workplace.

Use of the Internet and e-Mail

The activities performed by an employee while using the computer system of the employer are largely unprotected by the laws of personal privacy. Emails are considered company property if they are sent through from your computer system. In general, employers have the right to monitor and view employee email, as long as they have a valid business purpose to do so. Currently, many employers have email systems that copy all email messages passing through the system, in order to control for productivity, illegal use, and other issues. Often, emails are used as evidence at trial to prove a misconduct or a crime by an employee.

In addition, employers have the right to track the websites their employees, to block employees ‘ access to Internet sites for specific or limit the time that an employee can remain on a specific web site.

Phone calls and Voicemail Messages

The employers put into practice the electronic surveillance, including monitoring telephone conversations and voice mail messages of the employee, to control their employees and their business operations. In general, employers can monitor telephone calls made and received in the workplace, but there are legal limits.

The Law of Privacy in Electronic Communications (Electronic Communications Privacy Act, ECPA) places some limitations on the right of an employer to monitor phone usage of their employees at work. According to the law, an employer may not monitor personal phone calls of an employee, even those that are made of the phones of the facilities work. An employer may monitor a personal call only if an employee knows the particular call is being monitored and is in agreement with it. The ECPA also protects the voice mail messages of the employee on the job. Employers face legal liability if they read, disclose, delete or prevent access to the voice mail messages of the employee.

Drug tests After Hiring

An employer can require its employees to submit to a drug screening test. However, several state laws limit the circumstances in which an employer may require this type of test, and methods that it can use to carry it out. In general, an employer can ask their employees to submit to a drug test if you limit the test to:

  • workers whose jobs involve a lot of risk to themselves or to others;
  • workers who have been discharged from a drug rehabilitation program or are currently enrolled in such a program;
  • workers who have been involved in a work accident in which you suspect the use of drugs;
  • workers whose managers consider that they have been using drugs as physical evidence or her behavior (her eyes glazed, slurred speech).

Employees have rights that are clear and specific with respect to privacy in the workplace, but these rights are balanced with the privileges of their employers to monitor their business operations. If you are an employee and you believe that your employer exceeded the legal limits, or if you simply have questions about your right to privacy in the workplace, contact a lawyer who specializes in employment law to discuss your situation.

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