This is a guest post by Xander Schofield, independent consultant

Privacy has become a big topic in recent years, especially as it relates to employees in the workplace. With the exception of HIPAA, there is no standard federal law that sets forth privacy of individuals working in private sectors although government employees are protected to some extent. As technology continually advances, issues surrounding privacy policies will increase.

The use of vast technology such as email and the Internet has drastically improved efficiency of tasks, enables business expansion, provides automation of human tasks, and facilitates seamless communication. While these all have aided companies to reach new potentials, it also raises concerns that did not previously exist. Employers now have access to not only work-related information regarding their employees, but also personal information.

According to the American Management Association, 45% of companies in the United States conducted electronic surveillance in 1999. Fast forward 17 years and you can imagine the expansion and advancements that have been made regarding the intrusion of employee privacy. Data and intel can be collected on a wide range of activities including emails, web browsing history, logins, and other potential sensitive information.

Looking at the bigger picture, there are two main reasons employers collect information about their employees:

  1. Business – Common sense would tell us that there are obvious reasons employers would want to monitor the activities of employees. In the age where everything can be shared at the click of a mouse, it presents numerous challenges as it relates to guarding trade secrets and disclosing sensitive information. Furthermore, many companies back their stance stating that monitoring employees can show a better picture of employee performance.
  1. Liability – In the event that employees engage in behavior that would place liability on the company, electronic surveillance and intrusion of privacy can be highly useful. Furthermore, recent cases of harassment and discrimination have placed even more concern on the communications between individuals in a workplace.

Moving forward, employee privacy policies will become more debatable as technological advancements battle legal issues involved in workplace privacy. Privacy protection can be found in numerous sources such as the Fourth Amendment, Electronic Communications Privacy Act, and state constitutions.. Additionally, workforces that partake in contracts or collective bargaining agreements could place limits on employee monitoring.

Fourth Amendment – The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”. This is applicable to electronic surveillance gaining access to employee information. The downside to this is that it only applies to government actions, not private sectors.

Electronic Communications Privacy Act – This act prohibits unauthorized and intentional interception of wire, oral, and electronic communications during the transmission phase and the unauthorized accessing of electronically store wire or electronic communications. Unfortunately, since employees generally work on company networks, little protection is given.

State Statutes – While each state varies, most have some form of protection of workers against electronic monitoring within the workplace. Due to corporate lobbying, many state legislators have failed passing more applicable bills. In general, most states have statutes similar to the ECPA.

The future of employee privacy policies tends to be gray area. The policies regarding proper use of technology in the workplace as well as the means that will be used to monitor such use are highly recommended for the protection of both employers and employees. The battle between the advantages surveillance to a business versus the privacy of individuals will continue on. Furthermore, with continued technological advancements, the use of HR software will become a topic of debate until specific policies are set forth in relation to public and private sector employees.


About the Author

Xander Schofield now spends his time consulting startups and going for walks with his wife and two french bulldogs.