Does Privacy Exist in the Workplace?

Privacy in the workplace can exist in many work environments. Privacy laws are supposed to protect people inside and outside the workplace against intrusion into their personal lives, relationships and other matters which are outside the legal frame of reference of employers. The basic principle of privacy laws is that any personal information is in effect yours alone, which you have exclusive authority to release or withhold.

In principle, information like your name, account details, ID details, insurers, and names of family members cannot be disclosed to anyone without your consent. Usually this consent must be given in writing. However, there are areas where employers are permitted to obtain personal information of this type for legitimate business purposes. There are also restrictions on the uses to which information supplied to employers may be put. The only exceptions are cases where the employer is required by law to supply information about you, to authorities like courts, police, or other agencies empowered to demand that information.

Privacy issues in the workplace

There are, however, gray areas. Surveillance cameras, for example, are a legitimate fitting in any place of business. If a surveillance camera is placed in a washroom, and is used to spy on staff, is it a breach of privacy?

It might be. But it's also possible that the camera has been used to keep track of a staff member who's suspected of conducting illegal activities, or makes a habit of disappearing from their workstation.

This is where a real dichotomy is created. Employers aren't law enforcers, nor do they have the authority to conduct activities which would require warrants to be issued to police or other agencies. They are, however, entitled to monitor people on their premises to a reasonable extent for security purposes. Theft of materials is the classic case of this requirement. It's also reasonable that they should be watching staff, particularly those who may be a risk, or are breaching workplace guidelines.

Arguably, there are other ways of keeping track of staff, like paying attention to their movements. However, because surveillance camera images are widely used as evidence, employers may feel safer using camera images than verbal accounts of staff behavior to back up subsequent actions.

Either way, a court is required to settle the privacy issues. Employers have definitely been known to abuse their access to information. Employees have successfully sued for invasion of privacy, and some employers have been charged with serious offenses related to surveillance.

Social websites

Social websites have raised privacy issues. Some people have been fired for posting very negative comments about employers. A public forum is open to anyone. The employee, after posting, has broadcast their views to anyone who hits the site, perhaps thousands of people. The employee is deemed to have a right to their opinions. However, so does the employer.

The employer's right to fire someone is only slightly altered by the fact that this occurred on a website. There are no actual privacy laws covering this situation, unless the employer reveals information about the employee covered by those laws.