Calls, messages may be monitored by your employer

WORKING LIFE

January 01, 1995|By DEBORAH JACOBS

More than one company in five eavesdrops electronically on its employees. That's the result of a survey of 301 businesses large and small, in a variety of industries. The Macworld magazine poll found that businesses are not above searching computer files, voice mail and e-mail.

Most survey respondents snoop only occasionally. Just 3.1 percent said they had monitored their employees 50 or more times during the past two years. Still, many others -- more than 70 percent -- used some electronic eavesdropping method at least once during the same period.

Is this legal? The answer is not always clear. There's no federal law that covers all aspects of a person's right to privacy in the workplace. Most courts have said companies can intrude for "business purposes," and a lot of activities fall under that heading: Employers usually can search lockers to look for drugs, listen in on telephone calls to conduct performance reviews, and read faxes to prevent unauthorized use of company equipment.

Leading-edge technologies have blurred the boundaries between permissible monitoring and illegal snooping. Consider call-accounting systems, which allow companies to compile employee-specific telephone records. Should you expect your boss to count the number of calls you make to your spouse or trace a call to a substance-abuse hot line?

Some businesses, like airlines, insurance companies and retailers, tell employees that they will be monitored. Others state clearly in memos and handbooks that company property -- desks, file cabinets, fax machines, e-mail or phone mail -- are provided only for business use.

Some companies create electronic bulletin boards that workers can use to send personal material, or password systems for protecting computer or e-mail messages. Even then, the company may claim a right to monitor messages for whatever business purpose it dreams up.

Alana Shoars, a former administrator in Epson America's Torrance, Calif., headquarters, learned that lesson the hard way when she discovered her supervisor reading her e-mail. Ms. Shoars accused him of invading her privacy and threatened to report him to higher management. He fired her, prompting her to file a wrongful termination claim.

In a separate lawsuit, under California's privacy law, Ms. Shoars is seeking $3,000 for each of the hundreds of messages that were read. So far, the company has prevailed in both cases. The court found that Epson had a right to read its employees' e-mail. Ms. Shoars has appealed.

An employee won, though, in a case involving a liquor store near Camden, Ark. The store owners, suspecting that a theft was an inside job, used an extension phone in their home next door to monitor and record employees' calls from work.

Among the more than 22 hours of conversations recorded were several steamy phone calls between an employee and a customer. The tapes revealed that the two were having an affair. After the owners fired their employee, she and her lover sued them in federal court for violation of the federal wiretap law.

The court awarded the individuals more than $40,000. It found that they had "a reasonable expectation that their telephone conversations were private," and that the company had no right to record them.

What can employees learn from these two cases? When you're in the office or using company equipment, don't take your privacy for granted. Keep personal communications to a minimum. Use password systems if your company supplies them, but don't assume they're sacrosanct. Erase all traces of non-business messages as soon as they've been received. At any time, your bosses might be watching, and you want them to like what they see.

Deborah Jacobs, a business writer specializing in legal topics, regularly contributes to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes and Newsweek. Write to her c/o Chronicle Features, 870 Market Street, Suite 1011, San Francisco, Calif. 94102. Please include your name, address and telephone number.

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