Legality of Workplace Surveillance

On September 14th, 2011, Posted by author

Last modified: October 26, 2015

Workplace surveillance is the electronic monitoring of the employees conducted by the employers to see that the workers are prompt in their work and not slacking off and also to prevent other untoward activities like theft, disloyalty, and so on. There is a debate on legality of workplace surveillance. Below we try to examine legality of workplace surveillance with the help of other reliable resources on the topic.

Other than the remote controlled video cameras and monitors used everywhere in surveillance, companies also use methods such as wiretapping, eavesdropping and intercepting electronic communication. The 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (EPCA), otherwise known as the Federal Wiretap Act and other state laws deal with these issues set limitations or prohibitions on governmental authorities, individuals as well as employers.

According to this act, electronic interception of an employee’s communication is illegal without a warrant or by the previous consent of the employee. Retrieving stored electronic mail is allowed only if the storage is on the employer’s system. But companies can use the statutory exceptions to this law such as the ‘business extension’, where communication interception is permitted on the extensions of the telephone lines supplied by the employer; or the written consent of the employee is obtained beforehand; or the interception implicates the employer’s rights or property protection and when the retrieved communication was stored on the employer’s systems.

Consequently, it is very difficult for employees to make legal and actionable complaints against their employers who make use of exceptions such as these to keep their employees under surveillance at the workplace because their action complies with all the concerned Federal and State laws. Employers have a right to protect their property and trade secrets and their expectations that the employees should use their paid work time in enhancing business productivity and not spend it on communication with the competitors or those outside the company are justified. But such constant surveillance would damage the stress-free atmosphere and not only harm creativity and innovation and also create resentment in the employees.

To overcome these problems, employers could try to convince the employees of the ethicality, fairness and the necessity of surveillance not just to protect the company property but also to increase the efficiency of the employees. Employees too should take care to give no cause for such complaints and suspicions by keeping their activities and communications transparent and legitimate. They have to understand that carrying out non-work activities in the employer’s time and premises using the employer’s property is not acceptable work practice (Halpern, Reville & Grunewald, 2008).

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