Can Employers Spy on Workers?

August 5, 2016

Can employers spy on their employees? It is legal? Today, almost all employees use some type of electronic device as a part of their work. Whether its a time clock, company car, mobile phone, tabet or a computer? Whether we know it or not, our personal information and travel informatoin is being captured and in some cases stored. Can your employer collect data about how you live your life, who you call, when you see people, what you do online, and what goes on in your house (if you work from home)?

The short answer is yes.

Though our technology filled workplaces are full of convenience, the monitoring can result in a total lack of privacy. For example, what happens if you are having an affair and your employer finds out? Could they use it to fire you—or worse, to blackmail you? Could they make you choose between breaking the law or telling the truth and losing it all?

While this is a bit extreme (it’s actually the plot in John Grisham’s The Firm) — smart phones with GPS and wearables allow employers to gather data about their employees’ habits almost 24/7. For example, some employers are asking employees to wear electronic devices that collect and transmit data in exchange for more flexibility when it comes to working, such as permission to work remotely or from home.

The US Supreme Court ruled against a California police officer who claimed his right to privacy was violated when the police department he worked for read his text messages. The messages were sent on a department-issued phone. The employer because curious after he exceeded the monthly limit for texting. The Court said the employer was justified in monitoring the employee’s communications made on a work-issued phone so long as there was “legitimate work-related purpose.”

A California woman has brought a lawsuit against her former employer. She’s alleging the employer took monitoring too far. The employee was a traveling salesperson. Her employer monitored employees’ movements via GPS. The employer required employees to install Xora (an app that tracks peoples’ movement) on their company phones. The employees were required to keep their phones on them at all times, every day. The app constantly sent the employer information about employee movements. The woman filed the lawsuit after she was fired for uninstalling the app. She uninstalled it because she felt the employer was not entitled to know what she did and where she went when she was not on the clock. Now, the court will determine whether the employer had a legitimate work-related reason to monitor employees’ movements outside of work hours.

Employers are legally able to monitor employees’ use of the internet and email if they’re on company time and using company resources. This can include company Wi-Fi used by an employee’s personal computer or internet capable device. Employers may be concerned about the amount of time an employee spends participating in non-work-related activities on the Internet, as well as what types of activities employees are doing. Employers have terminated employees for misusing email and Internet when they are supposed to be working. People have been fired over social media posts as well. Employers may also be watching Facebook, Instagram or Twitter accounts. They’re likely to notice if you post a shot from your exciting whitewater rafting trip on a day you called in sick.

Despite the the leeway employers have, they can cross a line and violate privacy laws. For example, some employers, suspecting their employees of disloyalty, have attached GPS devises to private cars to track employee locations. If performed covertly without the employee’s knowledge, such actions violate trespass and privacy protections.

The employer in The Firm had to hire a private investigator to collect data against Tom Cruise’s character. Today, this task would be much easier. Most of us carry electronic devices or use the Internet almost constantly. These provide employers with even more data about our lives and habits. Employees need to know that what seemed nightmarish in the 1990’s has become a reality in modern day workplaces.

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