If It Is On Company Property, Is It A Privacy Violation?
A Portland man was sentenced to 10 days in jail for videotaping his co-worker while she was using her breast pump at work. Russell Kent Gordon used a spy pen to tape his co-worker claiming that he wanted to make sure she was not stealing from the company. A recent AOL-Jobs post listing 10 legal ways employers can spy on their employees includes videotaping, so long as it is not prohibited by state law. Regardless that in this case, it was an employee spying on another employee, not at the request of the employer, videotaping employees’ private conversations and actions is prohibited in both Oregon and Washington. Gordon resigned after the woman discovered the spy pen and reported it to management. The company, in this case, appears to have done everything correctly from providing the woman with time and a place to use her breast pump to confronting Gordon when his actions were discovered. But the story and the AOL Jobs list raise some concerns about employee’s personal use of company property, employer actions and privacy.
States, like Washington, have enacted laws that limit or outright prevent employers from asking and accessing the passwords to employee’s social media accounts. These laws have not prevented careless employees from receiving reprimands or even being fired for posts that are brought to their employer’s attention, but they are steps for protecting employee’s social media privacy. However, the laws do not address the other ways employers may legally “invade” an employee’s personal life. Nor do they specifically address the situation where employees use employer property to access their personal social media or emails.
Some employers are allowing and sometimes encouraging their employees to bring their own devices to work. This allows the employee to feel more comfortable with the devices, makes it easier for them to work remotely if necessary, and avoids many problems that arise from employee’s using company devices for personal reasons. But it does add costs and IT stress for some companies which has led the majority of employers to still provide employees with company owned devices. Employer provided devices remain the property of the employer at all time, no matter how the employee uses it. For this reason, many employers believe that all materials and information that is on the devices are employer property. This can become a problem for employers and employees alike if there are no clear guidelines for employer owned devices.
Employee handbooks cover a number of topics ranging from harassment to vacation time to the employer’s mission statement. The handbooks are also a good place for employers to spell out the specifics of the employer’s expectations and policies for employee personal use of employer property. Clear policies protect the employer when employees misuse the property and their information is accessed. They also protect the employees by letting them know what they should not do on the devices and how their information can be used if they do use the devices for personal use.
Technology and laws are constantly advancing and changing when it comes to the intersection of social media, employee privacy and employer rights. An experienced Washington employment attorney can help employers and employees alike in navigating these changes.