|December 16, 1999 New York Times
What Employers Can View at Work
By LISA GUERNSEY
The increasing pervasiveness of surveillance technology
has led many employees to wonder just how much privacy
they can expect anywhere in the workplace -- whether on
their computers or in their file cabinets. The questions
are not always easily answered, but a few guidelines can
be drawn, according to people who follow employment law.
In many cases, experts say, the details of a particular
situation -- such as the presence of locks on drawers --
will determine what is considered an unlawful intrusion.
Whether the employer is part of the public sector also
matters: Public employers are held to standards set in
the Fourth Amendment, which protects people against
unreasonable search and seizure by government officials.
And policies set by an employer can make all the
difference in determining what level of privacy is
The following list may provide a rough idea of which
areas of the workplace are typically considered private,
and which are not -- according to several lawyers'
interpretations of privacy laws and court rulings.
PURSES AND BRIEFCASES As a general rule, employers have
no right to go through a purse, briefcase or piece of
luggage that has been brought into the workplace,
according to a 1987 ruling by the United States Supreme
Court, O'Connor v. Ortega.
DESKS AND FILE CABINETS The drawers of desks and file
cabinets are also typically off limits to employers -- as
long as employees have not been given notification that
their drawers are subject to monitoring and as long as
the drawers are locked and not shared by others. This
interpretation, too, is based upon the Supreme Court's
PHONE CONVERSATIONS In most cases, in accordance with
federal wiretap laws, employers may not listen to an
employee's personal conversations without their
knowledge. But many exceptions apply: An employer may
listen to the phone conversations of telemarketers, for
VOICE MAIL Employers may gain access to voice mail
messages if they have a business purpose for doing so,
and especially if they have told their employees that the
messages may be monitored.
E-MAIL AND WEB USE Most employees should not consider
their office e-mail to be private, nor should they assume
that their employers are not looking at logs of the Web
sites they have visited. Only a handful of lawsuits
regarding workers' e-mail and Web privacy have made their
way to court. So far, judges have been ruling
overwhelmingly in favor of the employers, especially if
employees are told not to use the company networks for
anything but work.