Reasonable Expectation of Privacy in the Workplace

Privacy is a gray area. Even the law is not clear as to what exactly constitutes as privacy in the workplace. The law is lucid when it comes to privacy of people beyond their workplace, in public places or in their personal lives. But when an individual is working for a company and within the premises or using assets, infrastructure or resources of an organization, then privacy becomes a subjective issue. The context in which privacy is being discussed will become the most important factor.

Many companies have privacy policies and many don’t. Government jobs, whether at state level or federal, come with a certain privacy policy, most of which are assured by the Fourth Amendment. Private jobs don’t come with any such sanctioned policy. Companies have the right to determine the privacy policy at their workplace and it is up to the people working there to accept or reject them. Should an individual start working at such a company that has a policy, it is understood that the person is willing to accept the privacy clauses as stated in the policy. Many companies get their employees to sign on such terms of employment.

Privacy remains an ill-defined issue because of the rapid changes in the modern workplace. Technology is changing and evolving at a breath-neck speed. The laws cannot keep up with such a pace. There are certain aspects of privacy that are assured in all workplaces. The rest falls within the ambit of reasonable expectation of privacy in the workplace.

Reasonable Expectation of Privacy in the Workplace: Explained

There are certain privacy issues that cannot be questioned. For instance, there cannot be security cameras in the toilets or washrooms. A company can never have any access to your personal belongings. Even if you have to be frisked while entering a workplace, if the job requires such measures, then it must be non-intrusive. There are many such privacy issues that have been settled.

What have not been addressed are various instances when someone may perceive his or her privacy being compromised. For instance, what if a company monitors all phone conversations, internet activity, professional and personal emails and keeps a tab on everything that an employee carries in, keeps at his or her cubicle and carries out?

This is where reasonable expectation of privacy in the workplace becomes relevant. Reasonable expectation of privacy in the workplace is determined by the claim of right to privacy by an individual in the context which the privacy was allegedly violated and if that expectation of the individual is reasonable.

Let us take an example where a company monitors all modes of communications of its employees. Now, a company is well within its rights to monitor all calls made to and from the office phones. But the company cannot record all conversations. It can record official conversations citing company interest but it cannot record private conversations. A company can make a note of personal calls made by an employee and has the right to pull one up if he or she is wasting time, making too many calls or clinging onto the phone. But the company cannot record the personal calls.

Take the same instance and put it in the context of monitoring the internet. A company is well within its rights to browse all internet activity on its network. The company also has the right to keep a tab of all such activity, including office passwords and files and everything else. But the company cannot keep a track of personal details. If accessing personal email is allowed in a workplace, the company can keep a tab of how often the email was accessed but not the contents of the email, the password or any such private data.

A Hot Button Issue

Privacy at the workplace is a contentious issue, especially when it comes to technology. Personal privacy, pertaining to modesty and private possessions, is assured anywhere.

Companies that have lucid policies communicated to its employees don’t leave much room for reasonable expectation of privacy in the workplace. In all other scenarios, reasonable expectation will come into the picture. A company running a random inspection of a workstation or cubicle and thus going through all materials in locked and unlocked drawers of an employee may be within its rights or it could be a violation of privacy. It will depend on the context, if the employee was notified or if the company was not required to notify, if that inspection was generalized or if it was a one-off case, was there a reason for such inspection or was it with some intention. Many such factors will be assessed.

Reasonable expectation of privacy in the workplace can be best defined as a fair treatment of employees by a company where their personal details are kept a secret and their personal lives or possessions are not intruded upon and that they would not be asked to compromise on any of these unless there is a grave need.