Do Employees Have a Right to Privacy in the Workplace?

By Kathryn Hawkins

1 min read

Do you keep tabs on your employees’ on-the-clock activities? If so, you’re not alone: Two-thirds of companies monitor their employees’ internet use, a 2007 study by American Management Association and the ePolicy Institute shows. In general, businesses have the right to peek at employees’ computer terminals, monitor their website visits, videotape them, and listen in on their phone calls. And, in most situations, you’re not required to ask for consent — or even inform staff of your activities.

Most employees would be shocked to find how few rights they actually have in the workplace when it comes to privacy. But, as the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse demonstrates, U.S. courts usually side with businesses on employee privacy issues. As a small-business owner, that’s good news for you, legally speaking. However, taking advantage of the situation has the potential to cause major trust issues between you and your employees.

Here are three tips for avoiding trouble:

  1. Inform people of their (lack of) rights up front. Many employees fire off personal emails or visit personal websites at work without realizing that someone might be monitoring their activities. When you hire staff, disclose the fact that you may monitor their workplace communications. Include the information in your company manual or employee handbook, too.
  2. Give employees advance notice. No one likes to be spied on. If you plan to analyze which websites your employees visit or take a look inside the company’s collective inbox, let staff members know what you’re doing in advance. They probably won’t like it, but at least they won’t feel as violated as they might if they find out after the fact.
  3. Explain your rationale. “There are three main reasons employers monitor employees: legal liability issues, employee productivity, and security breaches,” Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute, tells Bankrate. Employees are likely to be peeved if they think you’re prying into their personal lives (even if they’re putting their personal lives on company equipment). If you’re doing an email scan to try to find the source of a computer virus, explain that; if you simply want to find out how much time your staff spends on Facebook versus doing productive work, explain that, too. If a specific employee did something to trigger the company-wide audit, he’s unlikely to repeat his actions.

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