Is There Such a Thing as Workplace Privacy?

When it comes to the expectation of workplace privacy, it’s best to assume there is very little.

While employers’ rights around monitoring vary according to the workplace, if it’s mentioned in company policy, they can legally read emails, install cameras, track employees using Global Positioning Systems, and listen to voice mails. With the explosion of social media, the rules are still being formulated, so it’s best to use caution in your postings.

Is an employer infringing on workplace privacy by installing cameras in the workplace?

If there’s a legitimate business reason for installing cameras, like monitoring cash register areas to discourage theft, or to improve security, it is not considered a privacy infringement. Employers must, however, inform employees of the presence of the cameras. State laws vary regarding other surveillance devices, like one-way mirrors, and bathrooms and changing areas are generally off-limits to monitoring.

Are employers allowed to ask for an employee’s user name and password to their social media account?

Many states have enacted legislation preventing employers from requiring employees to provide a user name or password for a social media account, but there are other ways employers can monitor employees’ social media postings. The best approach for employees is to realize that there is nothing private about social media, and if they post negative comments about their employer or customers, they’re taking a real risk.

Is an employer allowed to search employees as the leave work for the day?

Company policy dictates the cases when employee searching is necessary, like if something of value has been stolen that day, or if the policy states that employees could be subject to search in general. There are some reasonable restrictions though. For example, employers can search employees’ bags, but not their bodies. Employers cannot specifically target an employee without good reason, and intrusive searches are much harder to defend in court.

If I have a prescription for medical marijuana, can I be fired for a positive drug test?

While the laws regarding medical marijuana are currently evolving, if company policy calls for discipline or termination for a positive drug test for marijuana, the employee is not protected by having a valid prescription. While the use of medical marijuana is protected from prosecution under certain state drug laws, it is not immune from federal drug laws or company policies. In recent court actions, two states, California and Oregon, have ruled against the employee.


In an individual’s private life, it’s natural to expect privacy, but in the workplace, things are different. Employers can view your computer activity, track your location if you have a company car, and monitor your activity with cameras. Rather than rail against a perceived invasion of your privacy, it’s perhaps better to assume you’re always being monitored and act accordingly.


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