Given the increase in workplace litigation and fears about loss of productivity and profit, many employers are turning to workplace surveillance to monitor their employees activities. In addition, surveillance technology has advanced in recent years, meaning that it’s easier than ever for companies to watch what their workers are doing during business hours.
Whether you’re an employee or employer, it’s important to know what businesses are and are not legally allowed to do in terms of workplace surveillance. While some degree of video, electronic, or audio surveillance is permitted by law, there are notable exceptions that protect employees privacy and restrict the scope of that surveillance.
Read on to learn more about how video, audio, and electronic surveillance can (and can’t) be used to monitor employees productivity and behavior at work.
Cameras in the Workplace
Many Many employees wonder if their employer can monitor or record their on-the-job activities with surveillance cameras.
The short answer is yes: Many businesses do use video cameras to watch what employees are doing at work. But there are exceptions that protect your reasonable expectations of privacy at work.
Are surveillance cameras legal in the workplace?
Generally, surveillance cameras are legal in the workplace if they are used to protect employees legitimate business interests. For example, video cameras may be used to monitor activity to prevent internal theft or misconduct.
Additionally, video cameras can be used to monitor employee productivity and customer service. This is especially common in industries like retail, where proper customer service is paramount.
In a warehouse setting, where time is of the essence, an employer might install a video camera to record laborers to ensure that they’re consistently working efficiently.
Certain states may have further restrictions on the use of video surveillance cameras in the workplace, such as where and how often they can be used and what can be recorded. In every case, your employer should either notify you that your activities will be recorded, or the video cameras should be obviously visible to employees.
Are there cameras in the bathrooms?
Usually, no video cameras are permitted to record employees in situations where they can reasonably expect privacy. That means that workplace bathrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms are virtually never permitted to have cameras. Your activity should not be recorded in these rooms, and if you see what you think might be a video camera, ask a human resources director about it.
Other situations where you can usually expect privacy and freedom from monitoring are employees-only areas like green rooms, where you might take a lunch or coffee break or make a private phone call.
Can surveillance cameras have audio?
Most video surveillance cameras in businesses are not allowed to record audio. This is due to federal wiretapping laws, which protect your right to speak freely without fear of being monitored.
The only exceptions are when a company can demonstrate a legitimate business interest in recording audio, which we’ll go over more in the next section.
Audio Surveillance at Work
In addition to video surveillance, employers can sometimes use audio surveillance at work to record or monitor employees phone or oral communication.
However, the restrictions around audio surveillance at work are usually stricter than those around video camera use.
Can an employer record audio in the workplace?
Generally, employers have more leeway to record employees using video surveillance rather than audio surveillance. Audio conversations are protected more carefully under federal privacy laws.
There are notable exceptions, however, if you work at a company where customer service quality control is important. For example, if you work at a call center, in telemarketing, or at a customer service desk where phone conversations are a constant part of your job, your phone conversations are likely to be recorded at least some of the time by your employer.
However, your employer must make that clear and notify you in advance that your phone activity will be monitored.
Can an employer record conversations without consent?
An employer can very rarely record workers conversations, whether in email or on the phone, while on the job. If they do, they must obtain consent and notify employees in advance. Your business emails might be monitored, for example, while audio conversations are less likely to be unless you work in an industry where your phone conduct has a direct impact on the business success.
If an employer picks up the phone and overhears a private conversation, most workplace privacy laws require that they stop listening at that point. However, if your company doesn’t allow private calls while you’re on the job, you can still potentially be disciplined for having a private conversation while at work in the first place.
Workplace Surveillance Laws
In addition to workplace privacy laws that vary state by state, there are a few federal privacy laws that protect employees “reasonable expectations of privacy” in the workplace. It’s important to educate yourself about your rights at work, and the federal laws that protect your privacy.
Employee privacy in the workplace
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA) is a federal law that protects the security and privacy of certain workplace emails, chats, and any other electronic forms of communication. It extends the reach of the federal Wiretap Act, which covered oral employee communication.
However, two notable exceptions to that rule make surveillance much more possible for employers in certain circumstances. The business purpose exception to the ECPA requires that companies have and demonstrate a legitimate business interest in recording employees email, text, or online chat communications.
The consent exception to the ECPA, meanwhile, requires that employers notify their employees about any electronic surveillance they might conduct at work. Workers must be duly notified before any monitoring takes place, and they must agree to that potential monitoring in writing as well.
Lastly, the National Labor Relations Act protects employee privacy in union participation and membership. Employers aren’t legally permitted to discipline employees from attempting to form or participating in a union or engaging in collective bargaining. They also aren’t allowed to interfere in or monitor any union activities.
If you have any questions about your employer’s approach to surveillance and employee monitoring, you should ask your supervisor or HR department. You can also check your state’s local labor laws to learn more about what is and isn’t allowed in terms of workplace surveillance.
Maria Gold is a Content Manager/Writer for Empire Resume. She is dedicated to helping educate and motivate people with the latest career articles and job search advice. Her interests range from writing to programming and design. She is also passionate about innovation, entrepreneurship, and technology
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