Employee Privacy Rights in the Workplace

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“The one all-purpose, individual workplace that effectively supports both high-privacy and high-interaction activities is a myth. Private and shared activities are very different, and they’re more effectively supported with different work settings.” (Fritz Steele, nd) Workers around the globe are exposed to various types of privacy-invasive monitoring while earning their bread and butter. This invasion of privacy takes many forms like drug testing, video monitoring, internet, and email monitoring, phone monitoring, personality, and psychological monitoring. How is this justified by employers? Employers need to tackle security risks, prevent sexual harassment, and ensure optimum employee performance. Therefore these activities will inevitably weaken employee morale and dignity, and increase worker stress both psychological and physiological.

In the days of Henry Ford, who would inspect the habitat of employees in order to obtain vital information which adds to a healthy employee-employer relationship. Many employees are not sheltered against arbitrary discharge. Non-existent state laws or contracts. Employers often release an employee for any reason valid or not, even if the terminations are based on counterfeit and fallacious information.

The implication of increased employee monitoring powers heightens the risk that wrongful presumptions are drawn. For example, an employee might actually want to visit whitehouse.com, a pornographic site while actually attempting to gain access to whitehouse.gov. The monitoring device is capable of detecting access to an inappropriate website but powerless to grasp the intent of the employee. Every employer wants to be sure and expects their employees to do a good job, but on the other hand, employees to achieve this don’t want their every sneeze and trip to the restroom to be logged. That’s the essential conflict of workplace monitoring.

This, therefore, intensifies the reason why employees need to have fundamental protection. In the United States of America and predominately in many developing countries employees have fewer if not any privacy protections legally. The small numbers of ones that do exist are where workers have the right to access, scrutinize or dispute information collected by the employer. There is a collage of state and federal laws that grant employees a few rights.

For example, workers that belong to any industry in the private sector can refuse to take a polygraph test. Other than that no substantial workplace privacy laws except where an employer acts unprofessionally by violating an employee’s minimum expectation of privacy. Subsequently these violations by employees usually adversely affect employees in terms of morale, motivation, relationship with employers, insecurity, and stress.

On the other hand employees in European countries are treated much more favorably. Wide-ranging and comprehensive protective laws limit and adequately regulate the collection of personal information. These laws cooperatively include compilation precincts, the precision to which data is gathered, restrictions on the long-term preservation of data, safety, and shielding against relocation of data. In comparison to the United States of America, these laws and actions allow employers to screen for more justifiable reasons.

Employee privacy has been rushed foreword to the vanguard of the press in the past few years, mainly due to the changing workplace environment, legal implications, and awareness in business. Although conditions of employee privacy caries from state to state, many legal experts believe that private-sector employees have fewer rights if not any at all. This basically because up to 92% of private-sector employers carry out some form of surveillance, according to estimates. Most might even practice surveillance without employee consent. Past studies and reports have shown that employee monitoring both in and out of the workplace, has undergone a spectacular increase.

These include internet monitoring or checking of employees’ lockers or cubicles. For instance, Dana Hawkins stated in the US News and World Report that approximately more than one-third of the members of the American Management Association tape phone conversations, videotape employees, check emails, and inspection jobs applicants have exaggerated. Even by setting aside the ethical considerations of violation of employee privacy, errors in monitoring practice have had destructive ramifications on workers. Careers may be dented when investigators and managers overreach or aggressively try to implement company policy, mistakes are made.

Another reason why employee privacy is breached is the rising medical expenses, which have inevitably forced businesses to check into the medical history of current and prospective employees “Technology now makes it possible to store medical records in electronic form in a central database, providing an easily accessible cradle-to-grave look at an individual’s health history,”( Maureen Minehan, nd). Many would just blame advancements in technology, and it is true that advancements as such have provided employers the ability to gain information to an exceptional degree. As offices metamorphose from rigid, status-laden environments into highly flexible, collaborative-minded spaces, privacy issues take on greater urgency.

These days our privacy is at risk like never before. We often hear erupting issues like medical, consumer, and financial privacy. It’s obvious why courts usually side with the employers, the firm owns the building, computers, and telephone lines. What’s most invigorating is that many privacy breaches clearly violate fundamental human and constitutional rights. These may include selling financial information to credit cards companies or denying promotions based on medical records and hearsay for that matter. Although this should not be done, privacy is scarce. The Electronic Act of 1986 discourages employers from listening to personal phone calls, the Fair Credit Reporting Act requires written consent before looking into applicants’ history, but are these laws in practice? Books based on job seekers rate employers on basis of pay structure location and benefits. Why not the recognition of privacy?

What employers fail to consider that adequate privacy can help employees reach a state of a professional peak and improved quality of work. Privacy simply means personal or restricted. But who really decides where to draw the line between respecting someone’s private space and invading his or her privacy. The term invasion of privacy is really difficult to determine, the term is therefore open to interpretation.

There are umpteenth laws regarding the issue, but for every law that proves the essentiality and right to privacy, there is one contradicting it. No matter how many laws passed or how the cases turn out in court, privacy is the fundamental right of every American. The issue of privacy is talked about all over the globe and many people can now relate to one or more incidents of experiencing an invasion of privacy in the workplace. Understandably all employers seek to minimize losses and maximize productions and profits, but these can be done legitimately and fairly, without offending employees. All employees anywhere in the world have the right to come to their workplace knowing their peers and bosses will respect and honor them by not violating their privacy.

What might be deemed private and what not is hard to tell. For those Americans where the matter of employee privacy rights comes up, it’s best to use common sense and follow general norms and keep in mind the ethical aspect of the matter, or even just stick to instincts. If checking an employee’s email or rummaging through his desk seems wrong, then yes it probably is. There may not be a particular law or for that matter a court case to prove it, but our conscience, religion, and social norms should act as a guideline.

Each business owner needs to determine the level of privacy allotted to employees is to an ethical level. All companies naturally develop policies that are based on self-interest that there are boundaries to the information a company can obtain in areas like lifestyle, sexual orientation, affiliations, use of alcohol, drugs, etc. At stake is individuals’ psychic and physical privacy, respecting and safeguarding their personal autonomy can inevitably benefit employers.

How much good can be achieved through employee surveillance? Privacy of employees needs to be maintained at all costs, if tighter interviews and application processes will make employers more secure at hiring workers then isn’t that a better practice? Trust is no doubt an amazing thing; it can make or break a good employee-employer relationship. Depressingly we are heading towards a world where trust is not honored.


Coleman, Charles (2001). Journal of Individual Employment Rights. 9, 1-91.

Cranford , Micheal (1998). Cranford, Michael. “Drug Testing and the Right to Privacy. .” Journal of Business Ethics

Hawkins, Dana. “Who’s Watching Now? Hassled by Lawsuits, Firms Probe Workers’ Privacy.” U.S. News & World Report. 1997.

McCaughey, Martha (2005). EPIC Workplace Privacy Page. Web.

Steele, Fritz (2002). Work place issues: one in a series. Web.

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BusinessEssay. "Employee Privacy Rights in the Workplace." September 25, 2021. https://business-essay.com/employee-privacy-rights-in-the-workplace/.