Workplace Privacy FAQ

Authored by , LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

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Most Common Employment Law Issues:

Do Workplace Privacy Laws Apply To My Work Space?  Can My Desk Be Searched?

Workplace privacy laws generally state that employers are allowed to search the employee’s desk, office, and lockers.  These areas typically belong to the employer, and therefore the employee is not considered to have an “expectation of privacy” in such areas. 

This may also apply to computers that belong to the employer.  In other words, employers can search company computers used by employees, even if they are located on the employee’s desk.  Laws may vary regarding laptops and other personal “bring-your-own-device” used by the employee at the workplace.  However, some workplace policies may have different rules regarding workplace searches, based on company policies, employee contracts, or collective bargaining agreements with a union.

Can My Employer Search My Car?

This depends- if it is a company-owned vehicle, the employer can usually search the car.  However, if it’s the employee’s own privately owned car, the employer is generally prohibited from searching it without the owner’s consent.  If the employer is suspicious about illegal items, contraband, or dangerous items, they are better off contacting the police, who are trained to conduct such searches (pursuant to a warrant).

Can My Boss Read My E-mails or Listen To My Phone Calls?

Workplace privacy laws may vary regarding more personal information, such as that contained in an e-mail, or text message.  Again, if the e-mail or text message system is owned and operated by the employer, the worker generally doesn’t have any privacy rights in their company e-mails or messages.  The information in an e-mail can even be used against them during internal dispute resolution or in a lawsuit. 

Also, employers may also legitimately monitor employee phone calls, so long as they are business calls and not personal calls.  Once the employer becomes aware that a phone call is personal, they must cease the monitoring activities.  Some states require the employer to give notice to the employee if their calls are being monitored. 

Can I Be Monitored Through Video Cameras Throughout the Work Day?

In most jurisdictions, employers are allowed to use video monitoring systems in the workplace during normal business hours.  However, such video recordings must not be invasive in nature (for example, cannot be placed in bathrooms, locker rooms, or areas where employees change clothes at).

Can My Employer Require Me To Take a Drug Test?

Employee drug testing is generally allowed, so long as the procedure is not particularly intrusive or demeaning.  Also, many employment arrangements are at-will, meaning that both employee and employer are free to terminate the work arrangement for whatever reason, so long as it isn’t illegal.  This means that requirements such as drug testing are usually done with the consent of the employee. 

Again, company policies and agreements with unions may dictate the company’s views on drug testing.  Some state laws allow an employer to fire their worker if they refuse to submit to drug testing.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Assistance With Workplace Privacy Laws?

Privacy in the workplace is very important for the success of both the employee and the business.  If you have any questions or legal disputes over workplace privacy, you may wish to contact an experienced employment law attorney for advice and representation in court.  Your lawyer can help explain how the employment laws in your area affect your workplace privacy rights, and can assist you in filing a lawsuit if necessary.

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Last Modified: 09-04-2012 03:52 PM PDT

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