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Workplace privacy can be a tricky subject for both employees and employers. There are statutes, codes and cases that address an employee’s rights and responsibilities when it comes to privacy and complying with them in the workplace. But there are also lines of privacy that should be respected between employees. These lines are often more ambiguous, though important nonetheless. It’s crucial that employees have an open line of communication surrounding privacy expectations to ensure that standards are being upheld and respected in the workplace.
Most employees are aware that companies are watching what they do on company-owned devices. Electronic communication, like email, is under corporate watch. Employees understand that there are corporate policies in place to address confidentiality and privacy issues. But do these policies carry over to privacy rights between coworkers? How do you ensure that you don’t cross any boundaries with friends in the workplace? Many employees don’t consider the fact that their coworkers have private information about them. Are there laws to protect that information against harmful misuse?
PRIVACY ISSUES BETWEEN COWORKERS
One example of a scenario that raised privacy issue concerns amongst employees happened at Wal-Mart. In 2007, Wal-Mart fired a systems technician for allegedly recording phone conversations between a newspaper reporter and the corporations’ public relations department. The suspect used company-provided equipment to tape phone conversations. In addition, the technician allegedly intercepted text messages involving individuals who were not Wal-Mart employees without their consent. It’s unclear whether the technician violated the privacy rights of other employees to the point of legal liability.
This begs the question, are employees required to protect their coworkers’ information as well as their own? Many believe this depends on the type of information that’s at stake. The particular circumstances are important to consider, like who had access to the information and why. Even if you consider someone a close friend, be aware of what access to information they may have. Sharing financial or medical information may not be in your best interest.
YOUR RIGHT TO PRIVACY
Many states observe a general right to privacy that can be enforced by one employee against another. In California’s state constitution (Article 1, Section 8), includes a right to privacy. In other states, the right to privacy is included in other state statutes, codes or common law. There are several different types of civil claims for invasion of privacy, each of which addresses a different type of privacy violation.
The most important point is that employees and friends can always be held liable for misuse of their coworkers’ private information. Other scenarios that may lead to the misuse of personal information include libel and slander. Whether it’s a direct violation of the right for privacy or for defamation, employees should be held responsible for protecting their fellow employees’ personal information.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
So what should you know as an employee when it comes to privacy among coworkers? There isn’t a simple answer. At minimum, it’s crucial that employers communicate clearly in written policies in regard to who has authorized use of what information. Employers must also make confidentiality policies clear, and the processes employees should follow to ensure that confidential information stays protected.
It’s always a good idea to include the promise to protect the privacy of employee information in employee agreements. Even if you consider someone a close friend, they should still be held to the privacy agreements that are in place at your company.
Employers should be hesitant to institute a ban on employees discussing private information, even if that information is considered private by the employer. Things like consideration for promotion, salary and benefits may fall into this category. In some states, like California, it’s illegal to prevent employees from disclosing their salary. This could violate the NLRA (National Labor Relations Act) which allows employees in unionized and non-unionized workplaces to engage in “concerted activity.” Any standards that could be prohibiting employees from discussing their terms and conditions of employment could end in an NLRA violation. Employers can avoid this by being clear about their expectations surrounding employees disclosing private information.
Always remember to consult with legal counsel and human resources about your company's policies so you have clear information about what boundaries need to be upheld. The more employers can educate their employees on these important issues, the less likely it is that there’s a privacy-compromising circumstance.
Wondering how to implement some strategies to make sure you are protected against a possible privacy breach? Here are some quick tips you should keep in mind when it comes to privacy in the workplace, from your coworkers and friends.
FIND OUT WHAT YOUR COMPANY MONITORS
Anything and everything you do on your work computer can be monitored. Your office may be looking at your mouse strokes and taking regular screenshots of your web activity. Be sure to read the company policy on employee privacy to know what they monitor.
KEEP YOUR DEVICES SEPARATE
It’s best to use your own personal device when checking social media or using the web for personal purposes. If you can have a designated device for office work, it’s best to do so.
USE DIFFERENT PASSWORDS
You should always use different passwords for your office and personal email. While people monitoring employee activities may have good intentions, the people who monitor your data might not always be ethical. You should never let your coworkers or friends know your passwords. Even if they’re trusted, this information should be private.
TURN ON TWO-FACTOR AUTHENTICATION
You might accidentally open your personal email on your work computer and your password can be compromised. To prevent this, add two-factor authentication on your accounts to ensure that your password won’t fall into the wrong hands. Be sure to make your security questions something your friends and coworkers won’t know to ensure that you’re protected.
With the knowledge of your rights to privacy and the above quick tips, you’ll be more informed than most employees, and hopefully more confident in your ability to protect yourself and your information.