Can an Employer Install Video Cameras?

Employers must take care to use video cameras within the limits of the law.
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For better or worse, video cameras have become a fixture in modern society. Whether watching traffic buzzing through intersections or shoppers browsing for goods, surveillance cameras monitor mall properties, parking garages and office lots. No one questions the legitimacy of cameras in public places where public safety is the objective, but when cameras enter the workplace, issues about employees' privacy rights arise.

Cameras in the Workplace

    The legitimacy of cameras in the workplace hinges on the balance between an employer's right to know versus an employee's right to privacy. No one questions cameras in parking areas or inside public areas such as lobbies. These cameras are usually visible – employees and visitors are aware of their presence. Hidden cameras that are not known to employees raise another issue. When they are discovered – and they usually are – workers will wonder if the employer has more hidden and where they might be. Workers may feel that their privacy has been violated and morale may suffer.

Priotection for Employees

    While federal enforcement of employees' rights is based on Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure, many states have passed legislation protecting employees. In California, for example, it is illegal to place one-way mirrors in restrooms, dressing rooms, lockers and showers. Connecticut law extends that privacy right to include employee lounges. The prevailing principal behind these and other state laws, as well as corporate policies that employers have developed, is that there should be no surveillance cameras in locations where employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Reasonable Expectation of Privacy

    Unfortunately, what constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy is not well-defined. Private offices, desks and file cabinets may be considered private. A receptionist's desk in an area open to the public would not be private, while a worker's cubicle might be. Yet in a 2006 case in Massachusetts, the court ruled that there was no invasion of privacy when a video camera picked up a woman changing clothes in her cubicle after hours.

Balanced Practices

    If an employer is considering installing video cameras, it should take precaution to stay within the law. There can be no audio recording of conversations, because that would violate federal laws banning wiretapping without a warrant. Cameras should serve a legitimate purpose that can be documented, such as security, safety or preventing theft. Employees should be informed about the cameras before they are installed, with an open dialog to allay any feelings that they are not trusted. The company should prepare a written policy statement describing the location, purpose and times when cameras are in use as well as who has access to the videos. If the business is a union shop, the policy statement should include putting the cameras on the negotiating table.

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