Does your employer use video or surveillance cameras at the workplace? Many do, often to prevent theft and shoplifting. But what if your employer is taping or recording employees? Do you have any rights to privacy in the workplace? The answer depends on where you work and what your employer is recording.
State Laws on Privacy at Work
Many state legislatures have passed laws protecting employee privacy. For example, some states have laws restricting employer access to employee medical records, credit reports, and private social media accounts. These privacy-related laws recognize that there are some areas into which employers should not be allowed to intrude, even if they might have reason to do so.
Along the same lines, some states has passed laws regulating an employer’s ability to record or film employees, at least in certain areas or doing certain things. For instance, California employers can face criminal charges if they install one-way surveillance mirrors in areas where employees are likely to undress, including bathrooms, fitting rooms, locker rooms, or shower areas. Likewise, Michigan law allows surveillance of public spaces, but prohibits it in areas where employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy (for example, restrooms). To find out what your state requires and prohibits, contact your state labor department.
A number of states also regulate wiretapping or recording of audio conversations. In some states, for example, it is illegal to record a private conversation without the consent of all parties involved.
Surveillance of Particular Activities
Many states don’t have specific laws regulating workplace surveillance or use of cameras by employers. If you work in one of these states, your right to workplace privacy will generally be determined by a balancing test, in which the court weighs your employer’s interests against your reasonable expectations of privacy.
In the aisles or at the register of a store, for example, employees have no expectation of privacy: A store is a public place, and anyone can see what happens in those areas. However, our expectations of privacy while using the bathroom or undressing are quite high, and reasonably so. An employer that installs surveillance cameras in restrooms, locker rooms, or employee changing areas would be risking an invasion of privacy claim.
Private employers sometimes try to diminish an employee’s expectation of privacy by giving advance notice of surveillance or monitoring. In recent years, employers have done this especially when it comes to monitoring an employee’s electronic activities at work. For example, many employers adopt policies in their employee handbooks telling employees that their Internet use or work email may be monitored by the company. Employees on notice of such a policy would have trouble later arguing that they had a reasonable expectation of privacy in these communications.
When it comes to union activities or efforts to organize a union, employees have additional rights. Federal law prohibits employers from filming, recording, or secretly attending union meetings, or targeting email monitoring efforts at union-related discussions or activities.
(To learn more about other workplace privacy issues, such as monitoring of your email and internet activities, see Nolo’s Electronic Monitoring page.)
Questions for Your Attorney
- Does my employer have to give me notice if it is recording or taping my work space?
- If I'm videotaped without my knowledge at work, and I'm later fired based on something that appeared on tape, can my employer use that to prevent me from getting unemployment benefits?
- How can I enforce my rights if my employer violated my privacy?