9 Ways Your Employer Can Legally Spy On You
I've always said that Florida is the center of weirdness in the universe, so it came as no surprise to me that the recent story about a voyeur who installed a spy camera in the ladies' room at work, allegedly to make sure his co-workers were doing their jobs, happened in West Palm Beach. While this guy is likely not going to get away with his spying, you shouldn't assume you have privacy at work. Employers are turning into real busybodies about their employees' activities.
Here are 9 ways your employer may be legally spying on you:
Employers sometimes install keylogging programs that record every single keystroke you use on your computer. This allows them to see everything you are typing, including your passwords. The Stored Communication Act and Federal Wiretap Act, along with some state laws may offer limited protection, but so far most employers are getting away with this intrusive practice.
Many companies have written policies saying the company can monitor your email. That means that they may look at your personal emails sent on company computers and devices, even if you used your personal email address. Sure, there's a law, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, that limits this, but it's pretty weak. It allows employers to sneak consent forms into handbooks, applications and contracts, and circumvent your right to privacy. If you are forwarding inappropriate messages, sending confidential information to your home (or worse, a competitor), or doing anything else that you don't want your employer to know about, you'll probably be busted eventually.
3. Website monitoring.
Your employer is almost certainly monitoring your internet usage. That means if you're checking out porn sites, visiting YouTube, updating Facebook, or doing your holiday shopping, your employer will know about it. You may be violating a company Internet usage policy. If you aren't working the hours you're paid for, the employer may well discipline you for your Internet usage.
4. Social media.
Some employers have gone as far as demanding social media passwords to monitor employee and potential employee activity. California, Maryland and Illinois have banned this practice, but it's fair game in other states. Even if they don't demand passwords, employers can and do check out employee social media activity. If you're violating a noncompete agreement, using Family and Medical Leave to take a cruise, or sexually harassing a co-worker on Facebook, you can be fired for it. On the other hand, if the company social media policy says that you aren't allowed to discuss or disparage the company on social media, that may well violate your right to complain about working conditions with co-workers. Plus, if the company finds out about a disability, pregnancy, genetic condition or other protected information, they could be buying a discrimination lawsuit when they spy on your social media.
5. Recording conversations.
While you may be limited in your ability to record conversations without everyone's consent in 12 states, your employer may be allowed to record your conversations even in all-party-consent states. In most states, if one party consents, the conversation can be recorded. The federal wiretap laws have exceptions for employers who obtain employee consent, and also for recording done for legitimate business purposes -- such as customer service -- under very strict conditions. Odds are that if your employer is recording you they shoved a consent form into that giant stack of papers that you signed when you started working.
6. Video recording.
Although your employer probably can't get away with video recording your private restroom activities (can you say sexual harassment?), many employers use video to monitor employees. There is little limitation on the use of non-audio video recording. Some states have limitations, such as privacy laws, but in most places your employer can watch you.
7. Demanding proof on medical issues.
In Arizona, they've passed a law allowing employers to deny insurance coverage of contraceptives not issued for medical reasons. That's pretty extreme, and I'm not convinced it will withstand legal scrutiny. However, employers may be entitled to medical information from you under certain limited circumstances. If you seek accommodations for a disability, ask for Family and Medical Leave, or make a worker's compensation claim, your employer may be entitled to certain medical information. Your employer may also require a doctor's note under their sick policy and get away with it, as long as they don't require the letter to include a diagnosis or disclose a medical condition, or apply the policy discriminatorily.
8. Company devices.
If you're texting to or from a company device, using a company vehicle with a GPS, need to swipe a badge or enter a passcode to enter your workplace, or use the company copier, you'd better believe that your employer is watching. They can figure out where you were, when you were there, what you wrote, what you sent, just about anything you do. There is no secrecy when you are using their property.
9. Off-duty conduct.
While some states limit employers' ability to fire you for certain legal off-duty conduct, in many states you can be fired for using medical marijuana purchased legally, smoking, having outside jobs, drinking alcohol, and even your recreational activities.
Depending on your state, you might have some claims for invasion of privacy, intrusion on your seclusion, or other privacy rights if your employer becomes too intrusive. But most employees have very limited privacy rights.
In general, I suggest you beware. Big employer is watching.
If you need legal advice, it's best to talk to an employment lawyer in your state, but if you have general legal issues you want me to discuss publicly in a column or on AOL Jobs' video show, whether about discrimination, working conditions, employment contracts, medical leave, or other employment law issues, you can ask me at AOL Jobs. Please include your phone number if you're interested in appearing on AOL Jobs' "Lunchtime Live" video chat with me on Dec. 14, 12:30 p.m. EST.Hope to see you there!
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