If you believe that you have been subject to an unreasonable invasion of your privacy at work, your most powerful weapon may be to file a lawsuit against your employer.
The U.S. Constitution (if you are a public employee) and your state's constitution and statutes may provide you with some privacy protections at work, but often it will be up to the courts to determine whether an employer's actions are legal in a given context.
When does a particular workplace search or surveillance action constitute invasion of privacy? The answer is when the employer's reason for taking the action is outweighed by the worker's reasonable expectation of privacy.
To prove an invasion of privacy case based on an incident at work, your best argument will be that you legitimately expected -- based on your employer's policies and past practices, and common sense -- that the employer would not search certain areas or take certain actions.
For example, you may have a high expectation of privacy in the employee restroom or a changing area, particularly if your employer has not warned workers that these areas might be monitored.
Gather as much concrete evidence as you can to prove your case, including:
Your case will be stronger if you can show that, in the process of collecting information on you, your employer engaged in one or more of the practices discussed below.
This would occur if, for example, your employer asked you to submit to a routine medical examination, but mentioned nothing about a drug test. Then, the urine sample you gave to the examining physician was analyzed for drug traces, and because drugs were found in your urine, you were fired.
An example of a violation of confidentiality would be if your employer asked you to fill out a health questionnaire and assured you that the information would be held in confidence for the company's use only. Then, you discover that the employer divulged the health information to another prospective employer who inquired about you.
If your employer installed visible video cameras above a supermarket's cash registers, this would usually be considered a legitimate method of ensuring that employees are not stealing from the company.
However, installing hidden video cameras above the stalls in an employee restroom would probably qualify as an invasion of privacy in all but the highest security jobs.
Imagine your employer hired a private detective to monitor where you went in the evenings after work. When the detective reported that you were active in a particular political organization, the company told you to resign from the organization or risk losing your job. This would constitute an intrusion on your private life and could form the basis of a lawsuit.
A cause of action is a set of factual elements that allows for a legal remedy. For example, a breach of contract cause of action requires the plaintiff to prove four elements: the existence of a contract, performance by the plaintiff, nonperformance by the defendant, and damages to the plaintiff. If that plaintiff can prove these four elements, they are entitled to damages—usually money.
Depending on in which state you file your claim, an invasion of privacy case can be classified as one of four causes of action:
Each of these causes of action have their own elements to prove. While an in-depth discussion is beyond the scope of this article, it's worth noting that most cases of workplace snooping would fall under intrusion upon seclusion, while an employer revealing personal information about you would constitute public disclosure of private facts.
If your privacy was violated at work, your best bet is to hire an employment attorney to negotiate a settlement with your employer or, if necessary, file a lawsuit on your behalf.
To find out about privacy protections in your state -- and what to do if you believe your privacy has been violated unlawfully at work -- contact your state department of labor.
For legal help with an invasion of privacy or other employment-related case, contact a knowledgeable employment attorney in your area. Our Lawyer Directory can help you find one.