In comparison to an individual’s private life, a person’s legal right to privacy in the workplace is usually much less. The reasonable expectation of privacy relates to the United States Constitution and the privacy protections afforded in the Fourth Amendment.

In the workplace, the space technically belongs to the employer. As such, desks and offices may be subject to search. However, a locked desk drawer or a private conversation may receive more privacy protections than spaces that are considered more open. Work computers, email accounts, and phone systems may also be subject to monitoring.

An employee’s personal belongings, such as a cell phone, backpack, or purse generally carry a higher expectation of privacy. In the instance that something was stolen, or if the employee works in a sensitive or high-risk security position, the employer may be able to search belongings.

In the event that a search is conducted for no good reason, it is possible that the employer’s actions are illegal. If you are involved in a workplace investigation, be sure to check your employee handbook on how investigations are handled.

Government employees have different due process rights than those in the private sector. If the policy states you have a right to representation, it is often wise to use it. It is important to remember that human resources and company lawyers are in place to protect the company, not you.

Can My Employer Read My Email?

Activity produced on work computers and systems are considered company property. This includes email. Additionally, many employers now have email systems that make copies of all messages sent and received. This information is stored to check for illegal use, productivity, and any other issues that may arise.

It is important to note that privacy laws vary by state. What may hold true in one state, may not be the standard in another. Additionally, it is each company’s responsibility to have its own policies regarding privacy rights. For instance, if a company has a strict policy that prohibits personal use of email and computers, the company would have the right to access emails in case of litigation.

Private computers and private email accounts that are accessed on them, carry a reasonable expectation of privacy. However, if private information is transmitted on the employer’s network, the employer may have access to its contents. The bottom line, if an employee wants to keep a private matter confidential, he or she should not use work-related software or hardware in relation to such matters.

Can My Employer Hide Cameras at the Office?

Employers are generally allowed to monitor their employees through the use of security cameras. However, the cameras usually cannot be in locations that would be considered invasive. For instance, a camera placed in a bathroom or dressing area is likely prohibited.

Other areas, such as a cubicle or a break room may also be considered a space where an employee would have a reasonable expectation of privacy. If an employer does use cameras, they are required to notify employees of their use.

Can My Employer Search Me or My Car?

An employer is usually not allowed to search an employee’s car. However, there are exceptions. If the car is a work car that is owned by the company, then it is considered the employer’s property and they have a right to search. An employee-owned car may be searched if it is parked on the company’s premises and there is a company policy stating that any vehicles on the property are subject to search.

As mentioned previously, some situations may allow an employer to search the employee. Theft and high-risk security areas make personal searches more probable.

Can My Employer Listen To and Record My Phone Calls?

An employer may listen to any business-related telephone calls, without letting employees know they are listening in. If a personal call comes in, the employer is required to hang up immediately, unless the employee knows the employer is listening and he or she consents to it. If the employer has a policy of no personal calls, then employees run the risk of having their personal calls monitored. Since a distinction is not clear-cut, it is best if employees avoid personal calls at work.

If the employee’s cell phone is one that is owned by the company, it is important to remember that the employer may also have access to location data. As with video recordings, employers have the right to record audio, so long as the recordings are not taken in areas where a reasonable expectation of privacy exists, such as a bathroom or changing room.

Does My Employer Have a Right to Ask Questions About My Personal Life?

Employers are generally not allowed to ask questions regarding your personal relationships. Questions about your personal life that are based on a protected status (such as your race, age, sex, disability, etc.) are prohibited. Employees should not be asked about their spouse, children, or other relatives. Pregnancy-related questions are also not allowed.

Questions regarding tobacco, drug, and alcohol use are legal if the employer asks the employee if he or she has ever been reprimanded for tobacco or alcohol use while on the job. As for drug use, an employer can ask about illegal drug use, because it is not necessary to know about personal prescription drugs.

Can My Employer Test for Drugs and/or Alcohol?

Yes, it is legal for an employer to test employees for drugs and/or alcohol. In some states, such as California, an employee can only be asked to take a drug test after passing the interview stage and he or she has received an offer of employment. Employers may perform random drug screenings, but they cannot single employees out. It must be all or no one.

If there has been an accident and an employer believes drugs or alcohol were involved, they are permitted to perform a drug and alcohol test. However, demanding a test without reason is generally not allowed.

Drug and alcohol testing laws vary by state. In positions that involve a level of safety or security, such as those regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation, drug testing is covered by federal or state requirements.

Can My Employer Monitor What I Do on the Internet?

Internet activity that is performed on a work computer can be monitored by the employer. If the computer is owned by the employee, the employer cannot access information stored on that computer without a court order.

However, if information from a personal computer is transmitted through the employer’s network, the employer would likely have access to its contents and data.

What Can I Do If My Employer Violated My Rights in the Workplace?

If your rights have been violated in the workplace, you should file a complaint with human resources, and contact a local employment attorney as soon as possible. Employees are afforded many protections at work, and if any of those are violated, the issue must be addressed. An experienced employment attorney in your area will provide guidance and assistance with your case, and will advise you of your best options.