Many employers have to walk a fine line when it comes to balancing workplace productivity with employee privacy. There are many aspects of an employment setting where workers have an expectation of privacy. On the other hand, managers need to know what employees are doing and whether it could be detrimental to the company. Here are some of the top issues that pertain to managing employee privacy in a workplace setting.
Workers who perform duties where safety could be compromised if they were impaired often are subject to drug testing. Many states allow periodic testing for illegal drugs while others prohibit it. Even in places where it is allowed, the employer is only allowed to see information that pertains specifically to drug in the system, not just any medical information.
Lie-detector tests, or polygraphs, are only allowed in a small number of situations, usually for law enforcement officers or people working in national security.
Some employers chose to administer personality, aptitude or psychological tests to prospective employees to help predict whether they are right fit for the company. Although these are not universally banned, they could cause discrimination allegations down the road.
Certain types of workplaces include the regular use of security cameras. The electronic eyes might be focused on business patrons, employees or both. Other companies may track computer or phone usage by employees during business hours and on company equipment. The laws governing these three surveillance methods vary by state, so employers need to check out the restrictions in their area before instituting surveillance methods, even if they notify employees.
Related to surveillance, searches are another tricky issue. Generally, employers may legally search any items they own, such as company vehicles, desks, lockers or equipment while on company property. However, employees’ personal property or physical body cannot be searched if the workers have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Search warrants and other legal processes are exceptions to this rule.
In most cases, it is legal for employers to set standards for workers’ physical appearances. These types of rules usually govern employees’ hygiene, neatness, clothing and hair length. However, there are many restrictions that complicate this matter, such as allowances for religious garb or personal expression. Sometimes a claim can be staked that rules on personal appearance infringe on privacy laws. Requiring uniforms is another related complication. In some states, employers must provide uniforms free of charge for workers who are required to wear them. That is not the case in every state, however, so employers should check their own state laws.
Behavior When Off the Clock
One of the stickiest legal issues in the workplace is whether employers can govern what employees do when they are off duty. In fact, many states allow employers to discipline or terminate workers who engage in behavior during off hours that could embarrass the company or compromise its ability to function. Once again, however, employees can counter that to do so is a violation of their personal privacy, especially if information about their off-duty activities was obtained in a questionable or illegal manner.
Workers call in sick to work all the time, or they might need to take a few weeks off to deal with a medical condition. Regardless whether their managers or the human resources department is privy to this medical information, it may not be shared with other members of the staff. In fact, managers are not allowed to ask specific questions about what types of medical issues are preventing an employee from coming to work, as this might infringe on discrimination laws related to disabilities. One exception to this rule is information about progress in a program the employer is providing, such as substance abuse treatment or counseling.
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