6 effective tips to protect employee privacy at work

by Andy Nguyen
employee privacy

Want to protect employee privacy rights during workplace monitoring? 

Whether it’s for security or productive reasons, workplace monitoring has become a critical requirement. 

However, workplace monitoring needs to be done in a transparent manner to protect the privacy of employees.

In this article, we’ll explain what employee rights to privacy are and how to monitor employees without violating those rights. We’ll share six smart tips to help you reduce the negative impacts of monitoring on employee privacy. 

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What are Employee Privacy Rights?

6 Tips for Smart Employee Monitoring

Let’s get started.

What are employee privacy rights?

Employee privacy rights are the rules that limit how you can monitor an employee in the workplace or from a remote location.

US federal and state governments have several laws to protect employees against discrimination, unsafe work conditions, etc. but company policy usually dictates employee’s privacy rights.

You’ll need to check the state and federal labor and privacy law for specific compliance details, but there are a lot of grey areas when it comes to an employee’s privacy rights. 

In practice, you need to treat all personal data about an employee and their family as private and confidential to avoid any privacy issues. 

But why does it matter?

Managers these days may be looking into workplace monitoring to boost productivity and ensure workplace safety. For example, you may be considering performance management software to boost employee productivity.

However, the reasonable expectation of privacy by an employee must be balanced with their employer’s legitimate business interest for monitoring. 

For example, it may be standard practice for you to view a job applicant’s social media accounts. But prospective employees may deem social networking as private and not want you to view their social media profiles, as they see it as an invasion of privacy.

6 tips for smart employee monitoring (without invading employee privacy)

It is quite possible to successfully monitor the workplace without invading your employees’ privacy rights. Here are six smart tips to help you monitor employees responsibly: 

1. Protect confidential employee information

Employers have an ethical responsibility to store sensitive documents with employees’ personal information (such as their social security number) securely. They should also shred old documents whenever they are no longer needed.

Here are some of the things that are considered as private and confidential employee data:

A. Alcohol and drug testing results

Private companies are permitted to conduct alcohol and drug tests however, the results cannot be legally released. 

Many US state laws prevent employers from enforcing drug screening in their workplace. However, there might be a few exceptions. These include:

  • Employees showing signs of drug use at work (slurred speech, inability to walk in a straight line, redness of eyes, etc.)
  • Employees who were injured at work due to suspected usage of drugs. 
  • Employees whose jobs carry great health and safety risks for themselves or others, (heavy machinery operators, surgeons, etc.)

US law does not dictate how, why, and when employees can be tested. However, to avoid legal action, you should have a clear drug testing policy in place. 

B. Personal body searches

Policies within private companies can allow employees to be searched. The company policy can allow for the searching of an employee’s workspace and property (e.g. desk, car) if it is on company property. 

However, you need to be especially cautious about conducting personal body searches because they can lead to a multitude of legal actions against the company.

C. Background checks

Privacy rights also apply to a prospective employee. 

When conducting background checks on a job applicant, human resource professionals have a number of legal challenges to consider, not just employment laws.

A prospective employer will have to review what federal laws explicitly or implicitly apply to the practice of background investigations. 

In the US, this includes laws like:

D. Medical information

A company should never give out the medical information of its employees. 

Medical records fall under the category of private and confidential, along with sensitive information like family details, social security numbers, addresses etc.

In the US, only the employee themselves has a right to access their medical records. If they choose to disclose these medical records with an employer, you need to keep this confidential. You can’t share this information with third parties unless authorized by the employee to do so. 

E. GPS coordinates

While a private employer, can use GPS trackers to monitor employees, it should only be used when employees use company-owned vehicles and equipment such as a mobile device.

However, some states like Texas have laws that bar you from using GPS to track an employee. But they do not refer to the installation of GPS tracking devices on company vehicles.

2. Only use data for its intended purpose

When employers start using data for purposes not specified to employees, it increases the perception that the employer is invasive. 

As an employer, you must prioritize employee data protection and use data collected only for its intended purpose. If it’s used for another purpose, employees lose trust in their employers, and this can diminish morale. 

For example, if there are cameras to ensure employee safety, but a manager uses it to track employees’ break times instead, employees are likely to feel their privacy is being invaded.

Here’s another example: your company monitoring policy may include monitoring employee internet usage to avoid them visiting certain websites. However, capturing individual keystrokes and webcam feeds would be too invasive as it reveals sensitive information like passwords.

So what can you do?

  • Develop a strategy towards monitoring that puts employee privacy first. 
  • Keep tracking to the minimum amount needed to meet the intended purpose. 
  • Consider creating an employee privacy policy (or a privacy notice) to inform your employees about your monitoring strategy.

3. Limit electronic surveillance 

Electronic surveillance allows a business to track employee activities and monitor worker engagement with work-related tasks — even when working from home. 

Since the Coronavirus pandemic, more people are working remotely

And while COVID may have forced people to work from home, they still have a reasonable expectation of workplace privacy when it comes to personal devices — even if a personal device is being used for work purposes. 

Here’s how you can limit electronic surveillance to avoid infringing on the privacy of your employees:

  • Limit monitoring only during work hours with the help of productivity management solutions.
  • Monitor internal network traffic rather than monitoring devices directly. Network traffic is the amount of data moving across your company’s network at a given point in time. The heavier the network traffic, the more active your employees are.
  • Ensure your team is aware of employee surveillance activities. These activities should be well documented and explained. Employees should give a written acknowledgment of these monitoring practices.
  • The right to monitor your employee’s cellphone will depend on whether it is a private or business call. The employee, as well as the client, must be made aware that the phone call is being monitored. 

Note: Surveillance does not apply to email privacy. That is because the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA) in the United States prohibits any intended, actual or attempted interception of electronic communication like employee emails. 

camera surveillance

4. Limit camera surveillance

Employers are permitted to use video cameras to monitor the workplace, to prevent theft or for security reasons. 

However, there are some exceptions. For example, in the US, employers may not monitor union activity

While video recording is permitted in most countries, most workplace surveillance cameras do not include audio because US federal wiretap laws make it illegal to record employees’ oral communication.

Your right to video surveillance of employees differs depending on which state you’re in. It’s vital that your check on your specific state’s laws. 

For example, if you’re in Kansas, you’ll need to give employees notice if they are being recorded according to the Kansas State Legislature

If you’re in Tennessee, you can only have hidden video cameras in public places. Your workplace would need to fall under the legal definition of public places within that jurisdiction.  It’s important to check the relevant state and federal laws that apply.

Read our guide on employee monitoring laws for more information. 

5. Have an employee monitoring policy

Whether you’re engaging in in-house or remote employee monitoring, ensure that your employees understand why you’re monitoring them and how by developing an employee monitoring policy

In your monitoring policy, let your employees know that their personnel file is being protected, and their employee data is used only for productivity and workplace safety purposes. 

Here are a few things you should clarify in your employee monitoring policy:

  • Clearly explain where employees are being monitored.
  • Highlight what methods will be used to monitor them, like camera surveillance, GPS tracking, etc.
  • Mention that you’ll be monitoring them for professional purposes and only during business hours. 
  • Disclose the scope of employee monitoring during onboarding.
  • Ensure that your employees are educated on this policy and understand the importance of it. 
  • Maintain transparency by allowing employees to access their own data, so they can see what is being reported. 

Such transparency will ensure employees have clarity around their privacy at work, as well as job expectations. It will also protect you against legal issues associated with workplace monitoring. 

 Check out this in-depth guide on how to create an employee monitoring policy.

6. Use employee-friendly productivity management software 

Employee productivity management software has become a popular way to keep track of remote and in-office employees. 

You can help employees embrace such software by promoting it as a productivity tool rather than means of monitoring work. When employees understand that the performance software is there for their benefit, they will be more open to it as a tool to enhance their productivity. 

In fact, a study by Accenture, conducted in 2019, found that almost every private employee (92%) is open to their employers monitoring them, as long as it benefits them as well. 

Here’s how you can do promote productivity management software to employees:

  • Emphasize that it eliminates the need to chase down employees to monitor production standards and deadlines.
  • Explain that they can be more independent and identify the times they are most productive.
  • Highlight the simplicity of installing productivity management software on employee and company computers. 

Time Doctor is an example of productivity management software that helps do this. It offers a wide variety of powerful employee-friendly settings. This way, you and your employees get clarity of how they’re spending their time.

With Time Doctor you can:

  • Track time when you’re either offline or online.
  • Monitor time usage on the go on the Android app.
  • Manually edit tracked time if required.
  • Create and assign projects and tasks with ease.
  • Calculate and monitor your idle time to analyze productivity.
  • Tag websites or apps, like YouTube, Facebook, as productive or unproductive based on your needs.
  • Utilize the Chrome extension to track time use across other popular work tools like Asana, Trello, Basecamp 3, Bitrix 24, and more.
  • Receive daily and weekly reports about web and app usage, hours tracked, active summary, and more.

Note: Time Doctor isn’t a keylogger as it respects employee privacy at work.

Wrapping up

As an employer, there’s a fine line between monitoring employees and protecting employee privacy. 

On the one hand, employee monitoring is a critical business intelligence tool that boosts productivity and gives employers valuable insights into their workforce. On the other hand, employers need to avoid infringing on employee privacy rights. The challenge is balancing the two.

Follow the tips we’ve provided and you can create a great monitoring strategy that your employees would accept.

View a free demo of Time Doctor

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