More and more employers are using video surveillance at the workplace, often to prevent theft or to monitor what employees are actually doing while on the clock. What are your rights to privacy if your employer films you at work?
Most employees don't mind if retail establishments conduct video surveillance to guard against theft by outsiders. For example, there might be a video camera that tapes everyone who comes in the door or stands in front of the register. But what about employers that use hidden cameras to try to catch their own employees stealing? What about video surveillance of employees while they're working? Or cameras in the bathrooms or locker rooms?
Whether filming employees at work is legal depends on state law and on what images are being captured.
State Laws on Workplace Privacy
Privacy is a cherished value for most of us, and state legislators know it. Most states have passed at least some privacy-related laws. Many of these laws are intended to protect consumers by, for example, limiting the ways companies may use personal information or requiring businesses to maintain the confidentiality of medical information or Social Security numbers.
Some states have also passed laws that deal with workplace privacy, including the use of cameras and video equipment. In California, for example, it's a crime to install a surveillance mirror (one that can be seen through from only one side and looks like a mirror on the other) in a restroom, shower, fitting room, or locker room. In Connecticut, employers may not operate surveillance equipment in areas designed for employee rest or comfort, such as restrooms, locker rooms, or employee lounges.
To find out more about your state's workplace privacy laws, contact your state labor department.
Privacy for Certain Employee Activities
Even if your state hasn't passed laws that specifically protect workplace privacy, you almost certainly can't be taped or filmed while doing certain things at work, such as using the restroom or changing clothes.
If there's no state law that specifically allows or prohibits surveillance, courts determine whether an employee's privacy has been violated by looking at two competing interests: the employer's need to conduct surveillance and the employee's reasonable expectation of privacy. An employee who is using the bathroom or getting undressed has a very strong, and very reasonable, expectation of privacy -- and few (if any) employers will have a substantial enough need to film employees doing these things to override the employee's interest.
Other activities may also be off-limits for employer surveillance. For example, employers may not secretly film or tape union meetings.
To learn more about your right to privacy on the job, get Your Rights in the Workplace, by Barbara Kate Repa (Nolo).