Privacy in the workplace?

April 17, 2013
By: Charles Lamberton

The Constitution does not apply to private employers.  This means that:

Your boss can read you email.

Any email you send on a work-issued computer goes through the company’s servers and can be read by your employer.

Your boss can listen to your phone calls at work.

If they are work-related, your employer can listen to your phone calls. Federal law, however, requires that employers must stop monitoring calls when they realize they are of a personal nature.

Your boss can read text messages sent on your work phone.

If your company gives you a cellphone, the firm’s officials can see what’s on the cellphone. That’s even if you’re paying for the personal messages you send on your device. In a landmark case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Jeff Quon, a member of the police SWAT team of Ontario, Calif., sued when his employer obtained transcripts of his text messages without his permission. They found that he’d gone over the number of approved text messages because he’d been sending sexually explicit personal messages on the phone. The high court ruled in 2010 that Quon did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy because his employer was looking at his text messages for work-related reasons. Also, an individual’s 4th Amendment rights apply only to government employers, not private employers. “You live in a constitutional democracy, but that’s not true when you’re at work,” said Frederick Lane, the author of “The Naked Employee: How Technology is Compromising Workplace Privacy.”  “You’re in a capitalistic work environment, and the Constitution, put simply, does not apply to private employers.”

Your boss can monitor you by video in the workplace.

With limited exceptions such as restrooms and locker rooms.

You can be fired for something you write on a social media site, though it depends on what you write.

The standards here are changing. For example, a ticket taker for the Philadelphia Eagles was fired in 2009 for tweeting that the team was stupid (though he used a harsher word) for not signing a certain player. But in the last year, the National Labor Relations Board has issued rulings finding that it is illegal for companies to fire people for things they say on social networking sites. However, the legality of many recent NLRB decisions are in flux after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit called the recess appointment of three of its members unconstitutional.

You can take steps to avoid being monitored at work.

Privacy-rights experts encourage employees to bring their personal devices to work and use them whenever possible for personal interactions, because employers cannot access those devices. However, if you’re using your employer’s Wi-Fi network, your employer can access those messages. Better to use your cellphone provider’s network to send personal information.

If you have questions about workplace privacy, contact the Pittsburgh employment lawyers at the Lamberton Law Firm.