Privacy Issues at Work

Technology is a boon to business, but it also raises complicated issues of privacy in the workplace. The vast majority of businesses use computers, and technology has enabled employers to monitor nearly every aspect of workplace communications involving employees’ computer and telephone usage. Indeed, many companies take advantage of technology to monitor their employees’ use of the Internet and e-mail. When an employee has a reasonable expectation of privacy, however, such as with a physical space like a locked office, the employee may receive privacy protection. Drug testing by an employer, on the other hand, when the testing is reasonable and not a highly offensive intrusion, is usually acceptable. To help you determine what is and is not private in the workplace, contact an employment lawyer to discuss the validity of your company’s privacy policies and procedures.

Employer’s Right to Monitor Computer Usage

Employees who use company computers do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy regarding what they do on those computers. E-mails in the company e-mail system are stored by employers, and employers have the right to search, monitor and view employee e-mail as long as there is a valid business purpose for doing so. Employees may be disciplined or fired if their e-mails violate company policy or the law. E-mails are frequently being used as evidence during unlawful discharge trials to show employee misconduct or wrongdoing.

Employers have the right to track the Web sites visited by their employees on company computers, to block employees from visiting specific Internet sites and to limit the amount of time an employee may spend on a specific Web site.

Employer’s Right to Monitor Phone Calls and Voice Mail Messages

The federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) places some limitations on an employer’s right to monitor its employees’ telephone usage at work. Under the Act, an employer usually may not monitor an employee’s personal phone calls, even those made from telephones on work premises. An employer may only monitor a personal call if the employee knows the particular call is being monitored and consents to it. An employer may not intercept an employee’s voice mail, but it may be allowed to access voice mail messages that are in “electronic storage” on the company system.

Employer’s Right to Conduct Post-Hiring Drug Testing

An employer may be able to require its employees to submit to drug screening; many state laws, however, limit the circumstances in which an employer may test for drugs and the methods it may use to perform such tests. An employer may generally test its employees for drug use if it limits the testing to:

  • Workers whose jobs expose them or others to a great deal of risk
  • Workers who have completed a drug rehabilitation program or are currently enrolled in such a program
  • Workers who have been involved in a work-related accident in which drug use was suspected
  • Workers whom management reasonably believes have been using drugs, based on physical evidence or behavior


Employees have general and specific rights to privacy in the workplace, but these rights are balanced against employers’ rights to monitor business operations. If privacy is an issue in your workplace,contact an experienced Columbus, Ohio employment law attorney to ensure that your rights are protected.