Free Enterprise - The FindLaw Small Business Law Blog

Employee Privacy in the Workplace

Do business owners have the right to monitor employee's internet or phone usage?

Employee privacy rights have become an increasingly controversial legal issue, especially as employers increase their reliance on computers and email in the modern-day workplace. Simply put, although it may be easy, even entertaining, to monitor your employees' online activities, be careful that your activities are not verging on illegal.

Employee privacy rights in the workplace need to be weighed against your desire to control business operations. Here are some basic rights to know in some of the more popular privacy-related areas.

  • Email: A valid business purpose. If you are able to connect your review of employee emails with a business purpose then there is no invasion of privacy. Reasons can include: checking for productivity.
  • Internet Usage: Browsing the world wide web is part of the job for many employees. Browsing the web for things other than work is not. As an employer you have a right to not only monitor sites visited but also to block or limit time an employee can spend on a given site.
  • Phone Calls and Voicemail: The Electronics Communications Privacy Act is the biggest issue to worry about when it comes to keeping tabs on an employees' phone activities. Even during work hours, an employer is not allowed to tap into personal phone calls unless the employee specifically consented to it. Additionally reading, disclosing, deleting or preventing access to an employee's voicemail will cause some major legal issues.

Although employers have tremendous leeway when it comes to ensuring that employees are not engaging in illegal or unproductive activities being aware of your limitations is essential. Putting in place a policy for workplace communications and expectations will not only serve to place employees on notice of acceptable behavior but can also serve to limit your legal liability. 

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