Think that phone call you're taking on your work cell phone is private? How about that email conversation on your company email account? Throw any expectation of privacy in the workplace out the window -- almost every conversation you have using company equipment or on your employer's premises is fair game for employers, who have the legal right to monitor almost all of your conversations.
Few Legal Protections
Employees are often shocked to find that they have few legal protections from nosy employers seeking to monitor email, phone and even face-to-face conversations. The Fourth Amendment's protections against unlawful search and seizure are often invoked by employees who do not understand that these protections end where a private employer's threshold begins. Few places in the workplace have the famous "reasonable expectation of privacy" protection and these are limited, generally, to bathrooms, dressing rooms and locker rooms.
The legal basis for most employer snooping is the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. This legislation, while protecting private conversations from interception, gives employers broad authority to monitor employee communications, as long as the employer makes employees aware of the monitoring. Any means of communication belonging to the employer -- phone, computer, intranet, email and instant messaging systems -- falls under the business exception, and can be monitored. While employers are not supposed to listen to personal conversations, the act of determining whether or not a conversation is personal is often enough to allow employers to hear some if not all of the conversation legally.
Some states have their own laws that trump federal laws, making it more difficult for employers to secretly monitor conversations, or to use conversations that have been recorded. California, Maryland and Washington, for instance, require employers to get permission from employees before recording phone conversations. Other state laws may limit how employers use video surveillance that includes employee conversations.
No Such Thing As Private
When employees run afoul of employer conversation surveillance, it's often because they misinterpret the laws regarding business communication. Employees assume that because they are using a personal email account, using a third-party instant message or social media networking system, they are safe. However, if those conversations are being conducted on an employer-owned machine, on the employer's network, then the expectation of privacy, is almost non-existent.
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