The Legality of Eavesdropping in the Workplace

Columbia University researchers discovered a small electronic gadget turns a phone into an eavesdropping device.

Columbia University researchers discovered a small electronic gadget turns a phone into an eavesdropping device.

Eavesdropping is secretly listening in on private conversations. Cubicle office arrangements might encourage overly inquisitive co-workers to eavesdrop, but face-to-face conversations behind office doors aren’t exempt from snooping either. High-tech surveillance devices in the workplace are capable of intercepting conversations and gathering massive amounts of private information from phones and personal computers.

Legal Protections

Employees’ protection from eavesdropping falls under the broader category of workplace privacy. Federal and state laws recognize the employers’ right to control excessive Internet use, phone calls and emails. Federal law lets employers monitor phones as a normal practice of doing business, but forbids monitoring that jeopardizes employee privacy. The Federal Wiretapping Act/Electronic Communication Privacy Act prohibits monitoring wherever a reasonable level of privacy is expected. State laws generally limit employers’ use of electronic surveillance and forbid such tactics as secretly recording conversations, relaying information obtained illegally, wiretapping and planting interception devices. Laws allow monitoring if one of the communicating parties gives consent and when criminal activity is suspected. In Connecticut, employers must tell employees they’re being monitored and keep surveillance devices away from restrooms, locker rooms and lounges. Connecticut also prohibits employers from secretly recording negotiation and contract discussions with employees, per the Society for Human Resource Management.

Monitoring Limits

Employers are allowed to monitor employee discussions with customers or clients for quality control. However, some state laws require employers to signal the parties with an audible sound so they know they’re being monitored. Federal law lets employers listen in on calls without forewarning, but once a call is discovered to be personal, monitoring must stop, per the legal website Nolo. Companies have the right to read employees’ email, unless they have an email policy that protects employees’ privacy. Companies use email monitoring to uncover theft and fraud or to investigate harassment claims and other charges of misconduct. Employers may track workers’ Internet use to control excessive or inappropriate browsing. Installing devices to time website visits and block forbidden sites is protected under federal law. [ref.1, see “Internet”]

Penalties

A wiretapping and eavesdropping violation in Colorado is a misdemeanor for a first offense and a felony for a second. California’s penalty for wiretapping is $2,500 or a year in jail. Connecticut gives electronic surveillance violators a $500 fine for the first infraction, $1,000 for the second and 30 days in prison for the third.

Considerations

Courts settle workplace privacy disputes in states without monitoring laws. To decide if an employee’s privacy rights were violated, courts weigh an employer’s need to monitor the workplace against the employer’s right to expect privacy, notes Nolo.

 

About the Author

Valerie Bolden-Barrett is a writer, editor and communication consultant specializing in best business practices, public policy, personal finance and career development. She is a former senior editor of national business publications covering management and finance, employment law, human resources, career development, and workplace issues and trends.

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