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Your Rights General Info: Invasion of Privacy

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The level of privacy you can expect in the workplace varies depending on whether you’re a government or private employee, whether you’re union or not union, whether you’re an employee-at-will or more protected, and more. In general, employers have a lot of leeway to monitor your actions and to learn information about you as long as the methods are reasonable and it’s for a legitimate business purpose. To learn more general information about invasion of privacy, read below:

1. I work for the government. Do I have any privacy rights at work, or can I be searched at any time for any reason? 
2. I am a private sector employee. What are my privacy rights at work?
3. Is there anything specific that any employer cannot do in regards to privacy?
4. I do most of my communication at work on the computer. How much computer privacy do I have at work?
5. Before hiring me my employer wanted a lot of information (credit check, criminal records, drug tests) and now my employer needed my medical history so I can get company healthcare. What if this information were to be made public somehow? Do I have any legal action against my employer?
6. That’s a lot of information. I think I’m just going to play it safe at work by staying as private as possible and then be myself while off-duty. My employer can’t do anything about what I do outside of work right?

 

1. I work for the government. Do I have any privacy rights at work, or can I be searched at any time for any reason?

Government employees have the protection of the United States Constitution, which prohibits state, local, or federal governments from conducting unreasonable searches and seizures. For public employees, constitutional protection generally means that a federal or state employer has a legitimate expectation of privacy unless the employer has reasonable grounds to conduct the search or inquiry, or has a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. Some random drug testing that is not justified by safety or security reasons may be illegal.

2. I am a private sector employee. What are my privacy rights at work?

Private sector employees have fewer safeguards than public sector employees. Some states recognize that private sector employees have legitimate expectations of privacy at work and will provide relief for employees whose privacy has been invaded unjustifiably without legitimate business necessity. Basically, a balancing test takes place against your right to privacy and the employer’s right to keep their business safe. Most states, however, offer no guarantee of protection against reasonable searches of belongings, or against monitoring electronic mail or computer input and transmissions.

3. Is there anything specific that any employer cannot do in regards to privacy?

One thing that employers are expressly forbidden to do is the interception or monitoring of telephone calls, IF the employer knows that the call is a private call and is made with the expectation of privacy. Such conduct violates federal law under the Electronics Communications Privacy Act of 1986. If your employer has a policy prohibiting personal calls, however, you could still be terminated for violating the employer's work rules.

Generally, state laws do not protect employees from discharge for private, off-duty criminal, political, or sexual activity. However, the right of privacy may prevent employers from some unreasonable intrusions such as unjustified surveillance of the employee, breaking and entering the employee's home, sexual harassment, or wrongful procurement of confidential medical information.

4. I do most of my communication at work on the computer. How much computer privacy do I have at work?

In general, not much. Most employers can monitor your Internet activity at work and will fire employees for misusing the Internet during work. Even before hiring you many employers will check your social media accounts in order to get some background information on you. To learn more, read our site’s Social Networking & Computer Privacy page.

5. Before hiring me my employer wanted a lot of information (credit check, criminal records, drug tests) and now my employer needed my medical history so I can get company healthcare. What if this information were to be made public somehow? Do I have any legal action against my employer?

Your employer will likely learn a lot of information about you that you would rather other people not know. However, you do have legal protection because, unless necessary, an employer cannot release your private information to others without your permission. The exact laws surrounding these areas vary and Workplace Fairness has pages on them that you can read here.

6. That’s a lot of information. I think I’m just going to play it safe at work by staying as private as possible and then be myself while off-duty. My employer can’t do anything about what I do outside of work, right? Right?

Actually...they can. If you’re an at-will employee, it means you can be fired for anything, other than discriminatory reasons and a few other reasons protected by law. If your employers doesn’t like what you say on Twitter, and what you have said isn’t protected by any laws or your contract with the employer, then you can be fired. You can learn more about off-duty conduct here.