As more and more job responsibilities are taken online and employees are working in a remote capacity, digital privacy continues to grow as a controversial topic. As technology improves, employers have gained the ability to monitor nearly every action an employee takes on his or her work computer. Can an employee be reprimanded or terminated based on what an employer observes based on electronic surveillance?
The laws in these situations can be complex. In general, employees are afforded the same privacy protections they might have received in the physical workspace. This means private conversations held away from other employees and a locked desk drawer might be protected to some degree. However, the employee must remember that the work computer is ultimately the property of the employer. Therefore, are private conversations (over personal email, for example, rather than company email) held on the employer’s computer truly private? It’s a challenging distinction requiring an experienced legal mind to navigate.
- Internet usage: Most employers will install some level of firewall or “net nanny” protection to ensure their employees are not visiting harmful websites. These sites might ultimately be blocked from use, but will the company record the url an employee was attempting to access? What about the employee’s search engine history?
- Email and instant messaging: Over the last several years, the workforce has seen a communications surge toward electronic messaging over picking up the phone for a conversation. Whether this is over company email or an instant messaging service such as Teams, WebEx or Skype, employees can now quickly type up a note or response. Are these messages being monitored, though? While the company might have a right to prevent illegal activity over their servers, what about anti-corporation conversations?
While employees generally get clear training and expectation-setting instructions regarding actions that are unacceptable in the workplace, they might not receive the same directions regarding their digital privacy. If you were terminated, demoted or are facing a serious reprimand regarding online activity, it might be wise to discuss this complex situation with someone who can provide legal guidance.