Privacy at work is losing ground to surveillance

July 10, 1995|By Aaron Epstein | Aaron Epstein,Knight-Ridder News Service

If it's privacy you want, stay away from America's workplaces.

Increasingly, experts say, bosses are monitoring phones, hiding cameras, hiring undercover agents, perusing electronic mail and testing for drugs.

And some of the nation's largest and most respected companies have even been sued for intruding into employee love affairs.

For example, IBM, the giant technology company, gave a female employee a choice of her lover or her job. Since her lover worked for a competitor, IBM supervisors figured they had good reason to fire her. A court said they figured wrong.

And, a supervisor at McDonald's, the nation's largest fast-food merchant, discovered amorous messages on voice-mail between a male and a female employee, and then played excerpts for the man's wife. A lawsuit is in its pretrial stages.

"Romance is a real touchy area," said Robert A. Naeve, a Southern California lawyer who advises employers on privacy issues. "The worker's expectation of privacy is relatively high. It's difficult to defend."

Generally, the law permits employers to monitor the conduct of their workers, but they must have a sound business reason, act fairly and refrain from snooping beyond the bounds of commerce and common decency.

Employers usually have the right to search desks, file cabinets, offices and other places designated for business use. But workers may expect privacy in lavatories, lockers and, to a lesser extent, lunchrooms and lounges. Company policies, though, can change those expectations.

"Employers want to find out how people are behaving both in and out of the workplace," said Craig Cornish, a Colorado Springs, Colo., lawyer who has filed several employment privacy cases. "They don't want arguments over whether someone did something wrong. They want unimpeachable proof."

More than one company in five eavesdrops on employees in some way, according to a 1993 survey. Many privacy experts doubt the validity of the survey, but they are convinced that electronic monitoring of employees is on the rise.

"People think e-mail, because it has the word mail in it, is as confidential as a letter sent through the post office," said Robert Ellis Smith, editor of Privacy Journal in Providence, R.I. "But it's more akin to a postcard. An employee can push the delete button, but it's not deleted forever on the system. People have been fired based on what's been discovered on their e-mail."

Video surveillance, too, is becoming more common, Mr. Smith said, because "the technology is cheaper, widely available and smaller, and there's more pilfering and drug use, too."

Hidden cameras aimed at detecting gamblers in a postal workers' break room in Hawaii reminded one judge of "the telescreens by which Big Brother in George Orwell's 1984 maintained visual surveillance of the entire population of Oceania, the miserable country depicted in that anti-utopian novel." The judge suppressed the videotaped evidence.

Still unresolved is a suit by workers at a Sheraton hotel in Boston who complained that they were photographed as they undressed in the employees' locker room in 1993. Hotel officials said they tucked a camera into a locker to gather evidence against a busboy suspected of selling cocaine.

Wiretap statute

The federal wiretap statute -- and most state laws -- bar employers from listening in on employees' telephone calls unless it is done in the "ordinary course of business" or with the employees' consent.

Employers may lawfully monitor phone conversations to evaluate the work of customer-service employees or determine whether they are rude, disobey instructions, disclose trade secrets or make unnecessary personal calls.

Businesses say unannounced monitoring is the only way to sample an employee's typical performance.

But what if a supervisor overhears personal conversations?

The boss may not continue to listen and may not spread such information, experts said. An employer who does so risks an invasion-of-privacy suit and potentially heavy costs.

Alan Westin, a specialist in workplace privacy issues, said, "more and more employers want to know about the activities of their employees off the job, whether they smoke or drink or have dangerous hobbies like bungee-jumping or being a member of a parachute club.

"The employers are not doing this out of voyeuristic or vindictive motives, but because health of employees is costly for employers, in absenteeism, sick leave and health insurance," said Mr. Westin, a Columbia University political science professor who publishes a newsletter called Privacy & American Business.

The city of North Miami, trying to cut health insurance costs, recently decided to stop hiring smokers and required job applicants to sign a form saying that they had not smoked in a year. But the policy allowed current employees to smoke and didn't bar applicants from smoking after being hired.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.