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?

If the car 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 Employer Search Me?

Employers can sometimes search an employee’s workplace such as their desk, office, or other places in the business area because the workplace is considered the area belonging to the employer and employees should not expect privacy in these areas.

An employer can also search an employee and their belongings if something was stolen or if they work in a high-risk security area where search is required. It is recommended to check the employer’s handbook for any warnings about being search while on the work premises.

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. Under federal law, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 generally protects employees from having their electronic communications intercepted. There are certain exceptions to this rule, which include:

  • The employee consents;
  • The employer provides communications services and can monitor them; and/or
  • Monitoring communications is a normal activity in that business.

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). The same monitoring rules and limitations generally apply to wearable technology as well.

Can My Employer Require Me to Take a Drug Test?

Private employers can establish their own drug policy so long as employees know what that drug policy is ahead of time, the policy is written down and the results of any tests remain private. Since most employment is at-will employment, an employee can refuse to submit to a drug or alcohol test.

Many union contracts may have requirements about drug tests, but there are certain states have laws that limit the right of employers to drug test their employees. Employees that want more information about employer drug tests should check their employment contracts and their state's employment laws.

Can My Employer Search My Mobile Device (smartphones, tablets, etc.)?

It depends on whether the cell phone was provided by the employer or is your personal mobile device.

If the device was provided by the employer, then your employer can legally monitor everything you do on that device. This can include text messages, received email messages, and any other media such as videos and photos.

Employers can also install software to monitor all activities conducted on the mobile device. As an employee, you should assume that all activity on an employer provided device are monitored.

In the case of using your personal device for work, some employers establish policies concerning this usage.

The type of business your employer has and the circumstances of the devices usage can also determine what rights your employer have to access your personal device.

Employers may be legally required to access work data found on your personal device. These circumstances can include, but are not limited to:

  • State and federal security breach notification laws;
  • State, federal, and industry-specific regulations;
  • Data security regulations;
  • International data protection laws;
  • eDiscovery and other forms of legal procedure;
  • Contractual obligations concerning data retention;
  • Confidentiality obligations;
  • Client contractual obligations; and/or
  • Trade secret protections.

When are My Workplace Privacy Rights Violated?

A seemingly legal observation can become an unjustified invasion of privacy when your employer's monitoring goes beyond what is required or reasonable.

Since "required" and "reasonable" standards tend to be extremely flexible depending on the situation, you should talk with a lawyer about your workplace environment in order to determine whether a violation has occurred.

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 a local employment law attorney for advice and representation in court.

Your employment 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.