Yes, there is privacy in a workplace, although the expectation is much less than in an individual’s private life. An individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy and privacy protections pursuant to the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

The workplace space, however, technically belongs to the employer. Therefore, some areas, such as desks and offices may be subject to search. On the other hand, a locked desk drawer and/or a private conversation may be afforded more privacy protections than spaces that are more open. Other items employees use may also be subject to monitoring. These may include:

  • Work computers;
  • Email accounts; and/or
  • Phone systems.

An employee’s personal belongings, although in the employer’s workplace, generally are afforded a higher expectation of privacy. These may include:

  • A cell phone;
  • A backpack; and/or
  • A purse.

It is important to note, however, that if something is stolen and/or if an employee works in a sensitive and/or a high-risk security position, their belongings may be subject to search.

In the event that an unfounded search is executed, an employer’s actions are illegal. If an individual is involved in a workplace investigation, it is important to consult the employee handbook regarding how investigations are conducted.

Employees in the private sector have different due process rights than government employees. If an employer policy states an individual has a right to legal representation, it is wise to exercise that right. It is important to remember that human resources departments and company attorneys are in place to protect the employer, not the employee.

Can a California Employer Install Security Cameras at Work?

The installation of security cameras in a workplace can be a controversial topic when the surveillance is perceived to be an infringement upon employee privacy in the workplace. Prior to installing any work security cameras, an employer should review several internal factors related to security system operation and privacy, including:

  • The purpose of the surveillance and whether it is to monitor employee:
    • safety;
    • conduct; and/or
    • performance;
  • Whether there is a printed employee handbook that outlines any company regulations regarding employee monitoring;
  • Whether or not employees have been notified that security cameras are installed, especially if they are in unexpected places, such as in a restroom, if the state permits such surveillance.

It is important to an employer to be careful when installing video surveillance in non-public areas of the workplace. This may include private offices. An attorney may be able to provide advice regarding which areas of the office would be considered non-public.

It is also important for the employer to keep in mind that audio surveillance is subject to different and generally greater restrictions than video surveillance. This includes laws that prohibit the use of electronic amplifying and/or recording devices to eavesdrop and/or record confidential employee communication.

Laws governing video surveillance in the workplace vary greatly by jurisdictions. It is extremely important for an employer to consult with an attorney prior to installing any workplace surveillance equipment and/or implementing any workplace surveillance programs.

Are There Specific California Laws Concerning Security Cameras at Work?

Each state has their own rules governing workplace surveillance. Many states, including California, have laws in place that minimize the ways in which employers can monitor employees. In 1998, the California legislature prohibited all employers, except for the federal government, from making audio and/or video recordings, unless they were court ordered, in areas of the workplace, including:

  • Employee restrooms;
  • Locker rooms;
  • Showers; and/or
  • Changing rooms.

California privacy laws prohibit video monitoring in areas of the workplace where employees would reasonably expect to be left alone. This applies to those areas discussed above. These protections may extend to areas such as break rooms and/or lunch rooms.

California law prohibits the use of two-way mirrors in areas such as:

  • Restrooms;
  • Locker rooms; and/or
  • Similar locations.

A two-way is a mirror made from glass that is reflective on one side and clear on the other. It gives the appearance of a mirror to individuals who see their reflection but allows individuals on the other side to see through, like a window. These are commonly seen in areas such as police interrogation rooms on television and children’s ballet classrooms.

It can be argued that continued surveillance of employees by video camera is unreasonable, even outrageous, if the employee works in a non-sensitive position that does not involve dominion over large sums of money and/or access to sensitive and/or confidential information. There is less justification and need for video surveillance when there is little workplace interaction between employees and the public.

It is important to note that secret video monitoring at the workplace is always illegal. An employer must disclose the extent and duration of employee monitoring. An employer must also obtain an employee’s acknowledgment of understanding that continuing their employment depends on their consent to the workplace monitoring. It is advisable for an employer to obtain written consent to monitoring from its employees.

When Are My Privacy Rights Violated Under California Laws?

What may appear to be a legal observation by an employer may actually be an unjustified invasion of an employee’s privacy when the monitoring goes beyond what is reasonable. The standards for required and reasonable vary by state and may be very different depending on the circumstances of the case.

Therefore, it is essential to seek the advice of an attorney regarding any workplace environment surveillance issues in order to determine whether not a violation of an employee’s rights has occurred.

What Legal Remedies Do I Have?

There may be legal remedies available if an employer unreasonably uses surveillance equipment in the workplace. An individual may sue their employer for use of workplace surveillance equipment if:

  • The employee suffered harm due to the surveillance;
  • The employer violated the employee’s right to privacy;
  • The individual suffered a serious invasion of privacy, such as being recorded in a changing area;
  • The employer violated the individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy rights.

In order to prevail in a lawsuit, an individual must show the employer acted in such a manner that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person. The court will weigh certain factors in order to determine whether or not an employer invaded an individual’s privacy:

  • What individuals had access to the recordings;
  • Who was captured in the recordings;
  • What time of day the records occurred;
  • The length of the recordings; and/or
  • Whether or not the employer used safeguards to limit public access to the recordings.

Do I Need to Hire a California Employment Lawyer?

Yes, if you believe your employer has intruded on your privacy rights, it is important to seek the advice of a California attorney. It is important to seek the help of an employment attorney as soon as possible. An attorney will be able to review the facts of your case, local and federal laws, and represent you during any court proceedings, if necessary.

On the other hand, if you are an employer seeking to install a security and/or employee monitoring system, an employment lawyer will be of great assistance. A lawyer can assist with drafting and/or revising employee handbooks, and ensuring the monitoring system complies with the law. They can also inform you of your rights and responsibilities regarding these systems when they are installed and operated.