Employee Privacy Rights

Employees in most states have some rights to privacy:

  • Searches: Privacy rights may prevent employers from searching areas in the workplace in which the employee has a "reasonable expectation of privacy," such as the employee's handbag, the employee's locker (if it is locked with the employee's own lock), private mail addressed to the employee, and the employee him- or herself, except in specific situations (for example, pursuant to a lawful drug-testing policy).
  • Confidential Information: Privacy rights may also protect private employee information, so that an employer may not disclose information if that disclosure would be offensive to a reasonable person, and the information disclosed is not of reasonable concern to the public. Thus an employer who learns that an employee is going into rehabilitation for alcoholism, and who discloses that fact to the entire workplace, may be sued for invasion of privacy. Various state laws may also make employees' Social Security numbers and genetic information private, so that employers who disclose this information illegally can be punished.
  • Medical Information: The federal Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires that medical providers keep all individuals' medical information private. This applies to employees, and provides that employers may not disclose confidential medical information about their employees.
  • Telephone: Employees also have some limited rights to privacy in their telephone conversations and voice-mail messages. In most states, employers may have to notify employees and obtain consent before they monitor, tape, or disclose telephone and voice-mail communications. Employers may be able to monitor telephone calls without getting consent from employees if they are doing so in the "ordinary course of business," such as to monitor employee performance or prevent theft from the company.
  • Internet and Computer Use: However, employees who use computers, e-mail, and the Internet at work have very limited privacy rights. Most employers have policies in place that define the appropriate use of computers at work. Employers may monitor e-mail and Internet usage and may discipline or fire employees who violate their policies. Common violations include unauthorized personal use of company e-mail or visiting inappropriate websites.
  • Background and Credit Checks: An employer likewise may not conduct a background or credit check of an employee or prospective employee unless the employer complies with the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, as amended by the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act, which requires that the employer notify the employee or applicant in writing that it intends to conduct such a check and receive written permission to do so. In addition, before using such a report against an employee or applicant, the employer must provide the employee or applicant with a copy of the background check report and an explanation of his or her right to contest the information contained in the report directly to the company or person who prepared it. Various states also impose restrictions on employers' use of background and credit checks. These requirements may not apply to an investigation of an employee who is suspected of misconduct.
  • Polygraphs Usually Not Required: Similarly, most employees may not be required to take a lie detector test. In 1988 Congress passed the Employee Polygraph Protection Act, which states that an employer may not "require, request, suggest or cause" an employee or applicant to take a lie detector test, use the results of any such test, or retaliate against an employee or applicant either for refusing to take such a test or based on the results of such a test.
  • When Polygraphs Can Be Job Requirements: An employer may require a polygraph of an employee if he or she is reasonably suspected of involvement in a "workplace incident" that results in damage to the employer. A job applicant may be required to submit to a polygraph if he or she is applying to work for an armored car, security alarm, or security guard company and will be protecting facilities or materials involving health and safety, national security or currency, or if he or she is applying for work with a manufacturer of controlled substances.

Federal and state wage and hour laws, anti-discrimination laws, whistleblower laws and laws dealing with employee benefits all create other employee rights that are discussed in the sections dealing specifically with those laws. Many additional rights have been created by state and federal statutes and recognized by the courts of many states. Consult an employment attorney if you believe any of your rights under these laws may have been violated.

Quiz: Workplace Rights

How well do you know your workplace rights? Are your rights as an employee the same as your rights as a U.S. citizen or national? Do all workers have the same rights? Test your knowledge of legal rights in the workplace by answering "true" or "false" to the statements below.

True_____False_____ 1. I have the right to be considered for a job without regard to my race.
True_____False_____ 2. My employer is not allowed to fire me from my job based solely on my religious beliefs and practices.
True_____False_____ 3. Female employees have the right not to be sexually harassed, but male employees do not have this right because a man cannot be sexually harassed.
True_____False_____ 4. Under federal law, we have the right to workplace safety, which means our employer has to give us protection against job hazards and limit our exposure to dangerous substances.
True_____False_____ 5. Once I reach age 65, I cannot be fired.
True_____False_____ 6. Gay and lesbian employees have the same workplace rights as straight employees.
True_____False_____ 7. My e-mail messages are my own private business and my employer has no right to read them.
True_____False_____ 8. All employees have the right to health insurance.
True_____False_____ 9. People from other countries have the same rights as U.S. citizens to have a job without discrimination.
True_____False_____ 10. My co-worker has the right to take time off to take care of his sick wife, but I do not have the right to take time off to care for my terminally ill neighbor.

Your employment lawyer will know that these are the correct answers:

1. True; 2. True; 3. False; 4. True; 5. False; 6. True and false-it depends upon the law of the state and locality; 7. False; 8. False; 9. True and false-it is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of a person's country of origin or nationality, but people from other countries only have the right to work in the United States if they have obtained that right from the U.S. government, and in addition, some government and law enforcement jobs can make U.S. citizenship a requirement for hiring; 10. True.

Meeting with Your Employment Law Attorney

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Meeting with Your Employment Law Attorney

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