Do Employees Have Privacy Rights?

by QuickBooks

5 min read

Almost every employee has internet access while on the job, but as an employer, how do you ensure your team isn’t wasting time online or on other things throughout the workday? You have the right to stop non-business use of the internet at the workplace, right?

Of course. But the bigger question is: do you, as the employer, have the right to search their work computer, email or even track the sites they visit while at work?

There are guidelines for navigating this potential landmine of lawsuits and privacy breaches, and the best way to avoid these legal pitfalls is to enact and enforce the right policies before the problem exacerbates.

Guidelines for Employee Privacy Rights

It isn’t fair to say that just because someone works for you, you have a right to know what he or she is doing at all times. After all, do you know what they eat for lunch or follow them into the restroom? Hopefully not. The same is true of their lives on the internet.

While employees are at work, you can set guidelines as you would with anything else that happens in the office, such as harassmentfraternizationdrugs or smoking. Internet use and online privacy can be treated in the same way and without your employees feeling like their privacy is being invaded.

  • Prior to hiring, walk them through your internet policy and the repercussions for violating it. Make sure to be as specific and thorough as possible, and have them sign an agreement stating that they understand the policy and know the consequences for violating it. Also, be sure to include a clause that states the policy can be amended by you whenever and however you see fit.
  • Enforce your policy. If you do it for one, do it for all. You can’t fire or put an employee on suspension for checking their social media if you don’t do it for everyone, so be consistent. Also, be transparent. Explain exactly why you’re reprimanding the employee, and suggest ways to avoid trouble in the future.
  • Explain to your employees that office computers are to be used for work, but let them know that they are free to enjoy the internet on their own devices during breaks.

Using Monitoring Software for Internet Policy Enforcement

There are also ways to enforce your policies without constantly hovering over the employees. Rather than having team members report each other, you could install software to monitor your network. This gives you a passive method to monitor policy compliance as well as a way to get a bird’s eye view of how your employees are using their hardware.

  1. Install website-tracking software, like SpyAgent, on each computer. Inform your employees about the new software, and explain to them that it’s to ensure a productive and non-distracting work environment.
  2. Expect to have some “cheaters,” but allow a bit of leeway in the beginning. For many people, it is simply a habit to check social media or surf the internet while they are on the phone. It can be a distraction, but they may also be researching a new client or product. Hand out light warnings at the onset of any issues, and talk with offending employees about solutions to their habits. But after that, strictly enforce your rules to avoid the perception that your policies are simply for show. The majority of your staff will not likely want to jeopardize their job for mindless internet surfing, and giving them the benefit of the doubt can go far for their respect and loyalty for you and the company.
  3. If you continue to have problems, you can install software that will block social media sites and other time-wasters. This can alleviate a lot of headaches, but it can also pose problems if they need to perform research for a company-related purpose.

Give Your Employees Company Equipment

If you want to track their website usage, emails and other company-based connections, providing company email addressescell phones or other devices to your employees may be an option. When an employee is given a company-owned device that is to be used only for work, they are more likely to remember and respect your policies, as it’s a physical reminder of the need to separate personal lives from professional ones. Enact strict and thorough policies regarding each of the devices, and have employees acknowledge the repercussions of violating those policies in a written agreement.

If you plan on enacting any of the above suggestions, you must include it in your employee handbook alongside other policies to avoid any legal repercussions. Any changes to an existing policy should be signed by all current employees (unless your original policy allows changes without employee signatures). At the very least, inform your employees of the changes; remember that the goal is to monitor their activity while still maintaining their trust, which won’t happen if you implement new monitoring standards behind their backs.

A Note About Offline Privacy

While we have discussed internet privacy in detail, it is important to emphasize that in most states, employees have privacy rights when it comes to personal possessions, personal storage lockers and private mail that is addressed only to the employee. Depending on the jurisdiction, laws may also be in place to protect the use of personnel and health records. Internet privacy rights, on the other hand, are very limited when the employee is using a company’s computer system.

No one wants to be spied on, and people want to be trusted. As an employer, you have no real right to dictate what they do outside of the office unless it harms the image of your business or is an illegal activity. These policies should be stated clearly during the hiring process and should be read thoroughly by the applicant before accepting the position to avoid any confusion. Employees shouldn’t expect the same amount of privacy in the workplace as they get at home, and as the employer, you need to draw the line clearly so everyone in the company is on the same page.

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