How much privacy does an employee have at work?

Millions of Americans drive to work every day confident in their legal protections: they are not allowed to be fired for the color of their skin, paid less based on sex, or goosed in the rear. It may be time to start thinking beyond the cubicle when it comes to legal difficulties during the daily grind, though, given the technological world we live in, when employers are theoretically able to access emails, voicemails, and sensitive documents.

The employer-employee relationship and many issues that might occur, such as racial discrimination, wrongful termination, and unfair remuneration, are governed by both federal and state laws. The right to privacy at work often extends to personal belongings, storage lockers, postal mail, and activities outside of the workplace. In contrast, when technology enters the equation, the right to privacy becomes complicated and more vulnerable.

Companies are permitted to monitor employee emails under the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) if one of the following conditions exists: the company has a need to protect itself, there is a valid business purpose, or the employee has granted consent. However, there is plenty of opportunity for employers to justify monitoring and even intercepting communications given the idiosyncrasies of the language. It is advisable to see if a firm has established a written email policy that warns of email monitoring because, for all intents and purposes, the technique is legal, according to Mike Spykerman, CEO of Red Earth Software, which specializes in email policy enforcement tools.

The ECPA and the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 both provide a basic level of protection for voicemail and phone calls. According to the ECPA, an employer may be held accountable for getting access to, reading, revealing, erasing, or blocking access to an employee’s voicemail messages that are kept in “electronic storage.” The ECPA also stipulates that an employee must give approval before an employer can listen in on a personal call. However, it is frequently the case when a recording that shouts “this call may be monitored” plays on so many customer support and sales lines. Federal legislation allows employers to listen in on client discussions without informing the parties involved.

The issue of personal calls is another. Employers are often compelled to hang up if they decide a call is personal. The fatal flaw occurs when a worker receives a warning for making excessive personal calls. This warning could give the listener a reason to continue for further information.

Employers frequently use the fact that such personal activity is carried out on corporate time and property as justification for their unrestricted access to personal emails and discussions. However, a rising number of businesses now forbid the use of personal laptops and cell phones in the workplace, leaving employees with few choices for staying in touch with the outside world during working hours. It is only inevitable that the frequency of personal calls would rise if the conventional 8-hour workday transforms into a more demanding 60-hour workweek.

In general, an employer has no business monitoring your extracurricular activities. While some state constitutions forbid employers from prying into workers’ private lives, others permit information collecting but forbid it from being used against them at work. The National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from interfering with any employee’s attendance at or participation in union meetings and functions. In fact, unless it concerns an arrest or an after-hours employment that interferes with the employee’s responsibilities, an employer isn’t even permitted to inquire about a worker’s personal life.

As long as the exam is not found to be unduly intrusive, including questions about religion and sexual orientation, employers are free to offer tests to their workers. The courts frequently make individual case-by-case determinations since there is little legislation that clearly defines which tests violate privacy. Drug testing is governed by far more specific legislation. While it is permissible for an employer to conduct drug testing on job candidates, state laws often shield people who are already employed from having to submit to such exposure.

The finest workplaces are those where employees feel comfortable and unconcerned about being observed, recorded, or monitored. But given the realities of the modern workplace, they very well may be. It is the responsibility of every employee to remain educated and understand the boundaries of an employer’s rights.