Employers often use video surveillance to prevent theft or monitor employees’ behavior while on the clock. A court is likely to uphold these practices as long as the company has a legitimate need to film, the areas under surveillance are public, and employees know about the filming. However, employers must be very careful, as filming can violate privacy rights.
Most retail workers do not mind video surveillance to guard against theft by outsiders. Perhaps there is a video camera that records everyone who comes in the door or stands in front of the register. What about employers who use hidden cameras to catch their own employees stealing? How about video surveillance of employees in the workplace? What about cameras in bathrooms and locker rooms?
Can My Employer Install Security Cameras at Work?
The placement of security cameras in an office workspace can be a controversial topic when such surveillance is perceived to infringe on employee privacy. Your employer should review several internal factors related to the operation of security systems and privacy before installing cameras, including:
- Whether the goal of the surveillance is to monitor the safety, conduct, or performance of employees.
- Whether an employee handbook states any company regulations concerning employee monitoring.
- Are employees aware that security cameras exist (especially in unexpected places like restrooms if you work in a state with such laws)?
Video Surveillance Is Used by More Than Half of Employers
Video surveillance is used by more than half of the employers who responded to a survey by the American Management Association to prevent theft, violence, and sabotage at work. The survey found that 16% of employers used video surveillance to monitor employee performance.
The legality of filming employees at work depends on the state law and the type of images captured.
Workplace Privacy Laws
Many of us hold privacy in high regard, and state legislators are aware of this. Almost every state has passed a privacy law. These laws are designed to protect consumers by, for example, limiting how companies can use personal information or requiring businesses to maintain the privacy of medical information or Social Security numbers.
In addition, some states have enacted laws regarding workplace privacy, such as laws governing the use of cameras and video equipment. It’s a crime in California, for instance, to install a surveillance mirror (one that can be seen through from only one side and looks like a mirror from the other) in a restroom, shower, fitting room, or locker room. Employers in Connecticut are prohibited from operating surveillance equipment in areas designed for employee rest or comfort – such as restrooms, locker rooms, or employee lounges.
What Laws Govern Security Cameras at Work?
Individual states determine regulations governing workplace surveillance. Many, such as California, have laws limiting how your employer monitors you. The California Legislature banned employers (except for the federal government) from recording restrooms, changing rooms, or locker rooms unless the recordings were required by court order.
Contact the state labor department for more information on your state’s workplace privacy laws.
Employee Activities and Privacy
Even if your state doesn’t have laws specifically protecting workplace privacy, you almost certainly can’t tape or film employees while doing certain things at work, such as using the restroom or changing clothes.
In states where surveillance is not specifically permitted or prohibited, courts determine whether an employee’s privacy has been violated by looking at two competing interests: the employer’s need to conduct surveillance and the employee’s reasonable expectation of privacy. An employee who goes to the bathroom or gets undressed has a very strong expectation of privacy, and few (if any) employers will deem it necessary to film these activities.
Other activities may also be off-limits to employer surveillance. For instance, employers cannot secretly record union meetings.
Even though some courts have ruled against employees who challenged employer surveillance of their activities while on leave for a medical condition or workers’ compensation injury, these cases often involve fairly obvious abuses of leave laws by employees. A court might rule differently if an employer’s surveillance strayed into private activities and prevented employees with legitimate needs for leave from exercising them. (One employee who was ill did not attend work but went to the gym that day; another took FMLA leave when he was denied vacation time, then recuperated in Las Vegas.)
If you have questions about the legality of your business’s surveillance policy, you may want to consult an attorney.
When Are My Privacy Rights Violated?
A seemingly legal observation can become an unjustified invasion of privacy when an employer monitors you beyond what is required or reasonable. Since “required” and “reasonable” standards are often flexible depending on the situation, you may want to speak with an attorney about your workplace environment to determine whether a violation has occurred.
The HR Department’s Role
Even though everyone plays a role in workplace surveillance laws, the human resource department has one of the most significant roles. All employers should provide a safe working environment for employees. Human resources professionals are essential to this process. HR works to ensure that reasonable and effective practices protect employees while minimizing the risk of employer liability. As part of their integrated role in policies and procedures, HR should be involved in surveillance implementation and any communication relating to it.
Monitoring Employees to Ensure Productivity
In most companies, video surveillance is used with good intentions. When a store, especially a retailer, has a video near the entrance, the management can easily observe who enters and leaves the store. Using cameras throughout the building can also be helpful, as people are less likely to steal if they know someone is watching them. This also applies to employees. There is no way for employees to steal merchandise from the store with cameras near the cash registers or even in the back storage areas.
As long as the locations of the cameras are public and obvious to passersby, filming should not interfere with an individual’s privacy.
Monitoring Employees Negatively
When employers place cameras in places that are more “secretive,” problems arise. What riles employees are hidden cameras in the workplace or in arguably private areas. Generally, everyone understands the need for security cameras throughout a business. Nonetheless, it is reasonable for employees to expect and demand that certain moments remain private.
Employers who fail to be transparent and honest with employees about video surveillance in the workplace will face future problems.
Disclosure of Surveillance Records
In addition to the rules that regulate video surveillance at all, there are also rules that regulate what happens to video surveillance records afterward. The records created by workplace video surveillance may not be used or disclosed except under certain circumstances. Examples include a legitimate purpose related to employment or business functions, a requirement that the footage is presented to law enforcement, or a need to use the footage in civil or criminal cases.
Do I Need a Lawyer?
You may benefit from discussing your concerns and possible action with an attorney if you believe your employer has violated your privacy rights. If you are an employer seeking to establish a security system, a workplace lawyer will also be to inform you of your rights and responsibilities.