How much privacy should you expect at work?

Security & Privacy

How much privacy can you expect at work?

In the United States, the answer to that question is: not much.

According Melissa Ngo, the publisher of Privacy Lives, “Employees have few privacy rights in the workplace.”

American employers can track employee’s web activity. They can place surveillance cameras in cubicles. They can examine work phone records and track movements via GPS. They can even stand right behind you and observe what’s on your monitor. Imagine how annoying that could be.

How do you know if your employer is using any of these tactics?

Well, first turn around and take a quick look. Next, do a little research. “Workers should read their employee handbooks carefully, searching for anything connected with surveillance of the workplace,” Ngo says.

The European Union, on the other hand, offers more thorough protection when it comes to workers’ privacy. Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects “the right to respect for private and family life.”

Courts in the United Kingdom have refused to make a distinction between private and professional communication. Because of this generous view of workers’ rights and EU’s Data Protection Directive, European employers must not only be completely transparent about any surveillance, they also have to prove that their surveillance is both legitimate and limited.

Compare that to the US where some experts have assumed that employers reserved the right to read private email generated on work computers, even if it was not stored on company servers.

However, the times may be changing.

A recent ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court in Stengart v. Loving Care might hint at a new precedent.  According to Ngo, “The N.J. court ruled that employer Loving Care had violated employee Marina Stengart’s privacy by reviewing copies of e-mail sent to her attorney that were left on her work-issued computer because the e-mail had been sent from a personal, password-protected Webmail account.”

(Do employers really want to be monitoring private emails on work computers, especially when employees can easily pick up their smartphones to email away?)

The Loving Care decision may not hold much promise for privacy rights because the court may have been simply protecting attorney-client privilege.  The Workplace Privacy Data Management and Security Report suggested that the ruling may have been the result of sloppy communication policies that allowed for some “personal” use.

Regardless, new technologies like social networks present a new challenge for workers and employers. What rights do employers have to personal accounts that are associated with the company? The answer to that isn’t clear.

What is clear is that social media acceptable use policies are crucial for the modern workplace. Employees must be aware of what is permissible and what is being observed.

Employees also must be extremely careful when it comes to posting company information on social sites.

“Though you can manage your privacy settings on social-networking accounts,” Ngo says, “people should recognize that they are making public statements.”

And if you give up your right to privacy by going public, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Should you expect privacy at work? What are the privacy laws in your country? We love to know.




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When you’re at work, stick to your work. There’s no reason to have personal email, letters, photos, etc. on your work computer. If your employer wants to track your online activity, monitor your calls (with your knowledge), and so on, it’s annoying but within their rights as it is their equipment and you are doing these activities on their time. My husband is an IT director and he has had to delve into peoples’ email records to investigate claims of harassment via the email system, and he has had to retrieve web usage logs to investigate claims that employees were accessing porn sites from the work computers instead of working. So “spying” by the employer isn’t always about the employer being a bad-ass, but it’s often about the employer following up and investigating bad behavior by employees. Granted, though, sometimes the monitoring is being used as a “productivity” tool and this can have mixed results as the fastest employee, the one who clears the most calls in an hour, is not always the most effective employee in the long run. I have worked in a customer service environment where my calls were listened in on and timed, and I was always being chastised for spending too long on my calls. But my customers tended not to call back, since I handled their problem right the first time they called. So over-monitoring can be a double-edged sword.

I might argue that you might want to check personal email during breaks or lunch — but it does seem much wiser to do so on a personal smartphone.

You bring up an excellent point about employee monitoring that is only becoming more complex. Is there a golden mean between no monitoring and a complete supervision that allows for maximum productivity?

This is an interesting read, especially the question you bring up about social media accounts. For example, personal profiles business platforms such as the German XING (former openBC) can be difficult to handle. Primarily, you want to present yourself there as a person, show your work experience, talents and interests etc. At the same time, the profile – if you keep it up-todate – always shows who your current employer is and details about the company. Of course, the company wants to have a coherent image in public, and these employer profiles are public, too. So how much content in your personal profile should be determined by what your employer wants/needs? For example, the section called “I am looking for…” can be used just for personal interests but also for business acquisition.
Apart from that, I basically agree with Jan: When you’re at work, stick to your work. But an extreme constant monitoring involving cameras or movement control would definitely have a negative impact on my motivation and therefore productivity.

I agree, when at work, stick to your work.

Reading email sent through the company server may feel like a privacy invasion but it’s important to remember that email is fundamentally insecure, and there’s other ways of reading it.
I have extremely limited experience in IT but I am quite certain that there are hundreds of thousands of man-hours wasted every year due to people reading and forwarding images of cute puppies and chain messages. There’s no reason this should be passing through company servers.
Few employers would object to a short message from family members, such as “Mom, I’m staying late for soccer practice” or “John, meeting ended early today, want to meet for dinner?”

Personally, I agree with monitoring employees’ productivity at work; not content is so important, but their activity: websites visited, applciations visited (productive/ non-productive), active time, idle time and so on. Non-invasive employees monitoring should provide enough informaiton as to take right decisions regarding your employees.

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