March 8, 2011

Issues Concerning Surveillance in the Workplace

Filed under: Uncategorized — publicandprivatespace @ 11:39 pm

By: Ryan Bear


The workplace has always seemed to ride on the line of public and private space. On one hand, the workplace is somewhere that you as an employee have to get work done within a reasonable schedule which often indicates that it should be somewhat private. On the other hand, a workplace is owned or ran by an employer who wishes to please their customers with friendly employees and quality customer service. So because the workplace is riding the proverbial fence between public and private space, the customs for surveillance of employees in the workplace have been muddled. While you may think that you are in a safe environment because of the multiple security cameras and computer security programs within your office, you should also think, are they there to protect me, or to evaluate my status as an effective employee?

When it comes to privacy in the workplace there are four unwritten rules that should be followed by employers; Intrusion into an individual’s private solitary, public disclosure of private facts, portraying an individual in a false light, and the use of an individual’s name or likeness. For a little more on what exactly each of these mean, here is a website that explains them quite well. So it would seem that employees have a sort of right to their privacy in their line of work, but with the constant idea of losing one’s job and insufficient privacy laws in place, employees may not always get the kind of respect for their privacy that they deserve.

So when an employee gets up the courage to decide that they are going to file a claim of invasion of workplace privacy, what happens? Well employees do have the right to file such claims against employers with good reason because of the ECPA. ECPA stands for The Electronic Communication Privacy Act, and prevents things like wire, oral, and electronic communication interceptions against employees in the workplace. For a more in depth look at the ECPA click here. So if an employee has an issue involving one of these matters, then there is a strong likelihood that their problem could be corrected because any one of these types of interceptions is also harmful to the employer. But when an employee begins to complain about security cameras in inappropriate areas, there is no law, act, or treaty that can help them because as of 1999, the ECPA was the only federal privacy law in place for employees in the workplace. What this means is that if your problem is not also a problem to the employer, then you are filing a claim based on moral properties alone, and when you’re up against your boss, it’s not that easy.

Now just because the employer has the upper-hand in legal battles over workplace privacy doesn’t mean that an employee cannot win a case, but the employers use some of their own unwritten considerations that can ruin the plot of an employee’s claim. Employers have concocted a sort of set of considerations to certain policies within state and federal privacy acts that ‘balance’ out the interest of the employers and employees. These considerations most commonly take the form of the tricky little fine print in the contract that an employee signs upon being hired. The employers will include notifications of when and where their employees will be monitored or under surveillance. Employers also like to include information of how and when their employee’s areas and belongings at the workplace will be searched, and in which context they will be searched for. So while employees may or may not be directly informed about these considerations to privacy acts and such, because the employee signed the paper that included such clauses, all other evidence or arguments are non-existent.

With the advantage in the battle over workplace privacy in the hands of the employers the outcome tends to always look grim for those employees who feel wronged and violated by workplace intrusions. But alternatives to single-sided cases are out there. In her article, Respecting employee privacy rights in the workplace when using video surveillance, Alice Osborn suggests some ways in which a balance of security camera surveillance in the workplace can be achieved. Alice suggests that an employer should clarify what privacy rights their employees are entitled to and what exactly qualifies as an ‘invasion’ of one’s privacy. Alice also mentions that security cameras should not monitor places such as employee bathrooms and locker rooms and that employers should create an environment where employees can comfortably voice their opinions to their employer, because let’s face it, who wants to bring up an issue to a boss who you feel like would fire you at any given moment?

So while there are not many federal or state laws that protect the employee’s privacy, there are ways in which a balance that benefits the employer and the employee can be achieved. Employees need to understand where the areas that they are under surveillance are, and voice any concerns about security camera locations immediately. Employers need to make sure that their employees clearly understand where surveillance areas are and for what reasons they are there. Employees need to feel like they are under surveillance for their safety, while at the same time the employer needs to make sure their employees do feel that way, and then they can continue to monitor performance. There needs to ultimately be an equal ground between employers and employees that produces results that benefit both groups in the struggle for equality in workplace privacy.


1 Comment »

  1. by Daniel Rieman

    Other than the four outlined “unwritten rules,” I have never considered myself to have any expectation of privacy in the workplace. One job I had in my late teens was at a riverboat casino location, outside the casino proper due to being under age 21. For obvious reasons of security, casinos are often the most highly scrutinized video surveillance work environments. I believe it is fair for an employer to monitor productivity in the work place and there should be no expectation of privacy regard job performance. Certainly an employer has a right to evaluate the work for which an employee is being paid, whether it is a supervisor or a camera that “watches.”

    Comment by Daniel Rieman — March 9, 2011 @ 10:39 am | Reply

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