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Privacy is considered by many to be the most important legal issue of the 21st century. With the explosion of communications technology since the late 20th century, privacy laws regarding cell phones, text messaging, emails, and voicemail are still very rudimentary where they exist at all. Workplace privacy may be one of the stickiest areas regarding privacy law, as a line is yet to be clearly drawn dividing employer rights from employee privacy.
Most often, workplace privacy issues swirl around the controversy of how closely an employer can monitor its employees. Some companies have invested considerable time in creating privacy guidelines meant to explain exactly what is and is not allowed in terms of monitoring, but these guidelines are almost never legally binding. In some cases they may even be used to create a false sense of security among employees. Most experts suggest avoiding the whole messy business of workplace privacy by never using company computers or cell phones for anything other than company business, but various complications can still ensue, resulting in legal consequences.
In most places, employers have the right to listen to phone calls, read email and text messages, and even monitor workplace conversations. Information gathered from this monitoring is used to measure employee efficiency and performance. Some companies may put safeguards on company property to prevent misuse, such as blocking certain websites or forbidding downloads of anything not related to company issues. Yet even if a company states that employees are allowed to use computers and other property for personal use, there is legal precedent showing that employers can lie about policy and monitor personal activity regardless of claims or policy to the contrary.
Company ethics policies further complicate issues of workplace privacy. Some companies require that employees sign agreements that stipulate ethics both in and outside of the workplace. Arrests, recreational drug use, or even legal activity such as drinking may be used as grounds for firing or punishing an employee, even if the activity occurred outside the workplace and had no bearing or ill effect on job performance.
Workplace privacy is a vitally important issue across the modern world. While employers certainly have a right to maintain office efficiency and prevent misuse of company time, employees continue to have legal or constitutional rights to privacy even while in the workplace. Discovering the balance of employer versus employee rights is a major area of debate throughout the legal world. Until rights are specifically enumerated by legal systems, it is perhaps wisest to keep all personal business away from the office whenever possible.
In my opinion, workplace privacy rights should only go so far. People have to realize that using a work email address or a work cell phone for private matters can get you in trouble and is almost always a bad idea.
I can see how a person might need to call home from a work cell if they are on duty and are going to be late. However, some people are just clueless and use it, along with work email, as points of contact while having adulterous affairs.
That is about the worst use of company issued items I can imagine. These things are monitored, and if you really don't want anyone to know what you are doing, then why are you risking it all by using them for this?
I think that privacy is important, but employee monitoring is necessary sometimes. This is especially true if the work you do is sensitive and having a leak could spell trouble.
I worked at a magazine, and employees were supposed to keep quiet about what was going to be in the issue that had not yet hit newsstands. The editor didn't want other publications to have an edge over us, and she certainly didn't want them to copy what we were planning on printing.
She suspected that one designer was leaking information to another magazine. So, she tapped her phone. Sure enough, she was telling all to our competition.
The other magazine had been paying her to act
as a spy. We never would have known this for sure if the editor hadn't listened in on her phone calls, so I don't think that privacy rights were violated at all in this situation. As long as the editor had valid reason to suspect something, I think she had every right to do what she did.
@Perdido – It's good that your boss doesn't come down hard on everyone for being on the internet. It is sad when workplace policy becomes more strict because of one person's bad behavior. That is what happened at my office.
For the longest time, we had been allowed to make and accept personal calls on our own cell phones during work. Everyone kind of understood that they shouldn't talk for very long or broadcast their conversation across the office by talking loudly. We were respectful about it.
Well, the new girl who started two months ago had no respect. She would talk on her cell phone for half an hour, and she would not be quiet about it. This
annoyed everyone in the office.
So, management passed down a new rule banning personal calls at work except in emergencies. We weren't supposed to use our cell phones at all, and if someone had to call us with an emergency, they had to call our work phone to get in touch with us.
The business I work for has been around for hundreds of years, and the employee handbook has only been revised a couple of times. So, it hasn't been updated to include anything about workplace email privacy or internet usage, because the last revision was long before the internet was even available at work.
Our boss has told us that as long as we don't have anything to work on, we are free to use the internet as we please, as long as we aren't looking at anything offensive or downloading huge files. So, no one really had a problem with us being on the internet until my new coworker abused this privilege.
He would be watching videos while
there was a pile of work on his desk. It upset the boss, because they weren't paying him to stream videos all day.
So, the boss told him that as a new rule, we weren't allowed to use the internet for private matters. It's now an unspoken law around the office, and the boss generally doesn't get upset if we bend it a little by checking personal email or reading articles online in our downtime.
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