Privacy and the workplace: Is Big Boss Watching?

Stories about workplace privacy always pique our curiosity because we want to know our rights. We have all heard the stories of bosses intercepting e-mails and employees getting fired for downloading porn. But, just what are our privacy rights when we walk into work? Simply stated, since a company owns the equipment its employees use, the facilities in which they work and the contents of their work product, an employer generally has the right to monitor all of the communications in which employees engage.

Let's take a closer look at what that means for the average employee.

Computer clicks and e-mail

An employer owns not only the computer on each employee's desk, but the network hardware and software that transmits documents, memos and e-mail. This means that an employer has the right to monitor and review any data or document on an employee's hard drive or network.

In addition, employers can make use of new technology to monitor what is displayed on employees' computer screens. So the question is: have you spent more time visiting adult web sites than updating the end of quarter sales stats? Have you played 73 games of Solitaire instead of updating the database? Or used instant messenger to complain about your boss or pass on stock tips?

Did you know that an employer can capture and examine every click of an employee's mouse, the taps on the keyboard, all the URLs visited on the World Wide Web and every image downloaded? Even deleted files may be saved and examined by an employer.

Worse, unless the company manual or employment contracts stipulate that the company must inform employees of monitoring, it can be done entirely invisibly to the firm's workers. While some companies do inform employees with posted policies, computer stickers or muttered announcements, others do their snooping entirely in secret. The first an employee may hear of the practice is often during an annual review when his slacker web-surfing habits are brought up as a hot topic.

Phone calls and voice mail

The spoken word is as vulnerable to employer monitoring as the written, when it is uttered into the voicemail system of a workplace phone. Since the company owns the voice mail system, messages may be monitored. In most states, employers can also listen in to both sides of conversations held on office phones for calls made within the state. Employers have the federal right to monitor conversations made to other states. While personal calls are legally protected from monitoring, if personal calls are prohibited by policy the firm may monitor all calls.

The company also owns the information about what phone numbers are called from the office system and the durations of the calls.

To make private or personal calls from the workplace, the best solution is either a cell phone or a public pay phone.

Desks and workspaces

While the government does recognize that areas of an employee's workspace that are exclusive to his use are private, it also allows for unwarranted search if it is deemed work related. This opens the door to liberal interpretation and very little protection of privacy for employees. In other words, the company has the right to read work documents that may be on an employee's desk, and can probably even rummage through the employee's drawer of office supplies, although it would be more hard-pressed to justify a search through the employee's purse. However, if the employer suspects an illegal action such as theft of property or information, it clearly has the right to search the employee's personal property.

How to know what an employer's privacy practices are

Often companies state their privacy policies in employee handbooks, manuals or memos. Unionized employees often have contracts that dictate privacy related procedures. Other companies post notices of their policies in common areas or in human resources. Unfortunately, employers are not required by law to notify their employees of their policies, so at many firms the policies are a mystery to everyone except the people enforcing them. The best practice for employees is to assume that their employers are privy to all of the information that passes through their computer, their phone and their office and to act accordingly.

Concerned about your privacy? The best way to be in charge of your own information and to prevent your employer from monitoring your every move is to be your own boss.