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Home > Privacy and Business > Workplace Privacy

Workplace Privacy

The level of privacy an employee has in the workplace is a growing area of concern. Particularly with new communications technologies like the World Wide Web and e-mail, the rules are unclear about whether employees may expect their company to observe what they are doing and saying.

Compared to the telephone or traditional mail, online communications can allow employees to quietly and unobtrusively do tremendous damage to a company. Good security practices by employers may require them to institute a certain level of monitoring or recording of employee activities. This is even more true when legislation or regulation contains disproportionate fines for companies that fail to have sufficient security measures in place.

Legislators or regulators can only guess at the privacy needs and expectations of multi-millions of employees working in millions of different businesses and industries. They can not provide adequate solutions. Any law or regulation would needlessly cram workers and businesses into privacy practices that satisfy few and interfere with the rest.

Instead, a decentralized process must guide the development of privacy practices in the workplace. Foremost, employers and employees should be able to bargain over the terms of employment, including what privacy expectations an employee may have. Businesses may find that they retain good employees by offering them privacy. On the other hand, they may find that employees are indifferent to privacy.

The common law courts may also find that there are inherent privacy expectations in the workplace and that a business can injure employees by violating these expectations.

The specific problem of employee e-mail privacy is one of many that will be solved by technological advances and the growing ubiquity of computing devices. As Internet access and e-mail make their way into more homes and mobile devices, fewer workers will need or want to use their office computers for personal functions. They will be able to conduct private communications over their own devices, and use business devices for business communications.


Employee Privacy: Computer-Use Monitoring Practices and Policies of Selected Companies General Accounting Office (September 27, 2002)

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[updated 05/21/03]

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