Privacy is vital in every environment, especially the workplace. As a remote business owner, you must create an environment where employees feel safe and valued and with workplace privacy practices at its core.

Here at Hubstaff, we prioritize privacy against unnecessary workplace surveillance or monitoring. We ensure team members know what their organization may track, and we’re currently adjusting our features to promote greater privacy. In future updates to our software, URLs and other activity will transition from specific data to broad categories, protecting team members even more.

But what about other practices for your workplace privacy? And why is workplace privacy important to your company’s future?

Let’s look at some legal considerations, regulations, rights, examples, and related privacy in workplace ethics. We’ll also note some differences between the United States and the European Union and some privacy examples.

Disclaimer: This is a high-level overview and not legal advice. Companies should heavily research privacy and consult legal experts on laws covering their workforce to protect their people and operations.

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What is employee privacy?

When we talk about workplace privacy or employee privacy, we’re referring to employees’ right to control their personal information and activities at work. So, what is it, and why is workplace privacy important?

Employees at any company have the right to keep certain information private and confidential,  and people are also allowed personal space. Employers should not retain this information sparingly or disclose it. When an employer does that — even during an accidental disclosure such as a data breach — they likely have liability for any harm done to the employee.

Historically, much of the focus on employee privacy has prioritized health and political information. Many countries do not allow disclosure of this information, and some do not allow employers to collect this either. You must review any relevant legislation covering your workforce.

Modern privacy issues in the workplace

Employee privacy and workplace privacy can cover many different types of information, with common ones including:

  • Medical records about existing conditions
  • Health information leading to accommodations
  • Employer-driven health information, such as results from drug testing
  • Information that could be used for personal or lifestyle discrimination (i.e., sexual identity or orientation, political views, caste, heritage, religion, age, and disability)
  • Union activities
  • Information about activities that occur outside of work

Your country may have specific terms to pay attention to as well. In the U.S., “protected class” is one such phrase. It can help you understand areas of privacy and discrimination for current and former employees as well as job applicants.

Understanding these enables you to adopt employee performance tools like Hubstaff while avoiding the loss of workplace privacy.

Workplace privacy rights and monitoring

Employees have the right to privacy in their personal lives, including some things that can happen while at work.

Remote companies must understand this to respect workplace privacy rights regarding how they monitor employees. Generally speaking, you should avoid accessing personal information and communications from your employees. This includes but isn’t limited to:

  • Emails
  • Texts
  • Personal phone calls
  • Social media accounts

Even if someone accesses a personal email account using company property, you should do your best not to grab any information from that account.

Using tools that don’t log keys, like Hubstaff, can help keep employee data secure. Even if someone logs into their bank account while on the clock, Hubstaff cannot log the password or other details they input for that access. While our software allows screenshots, we only encourage companies to use this feature if strictly necessary.

Hubstaff screenshots

If screenshots are turned on, we recommend employees be allowed and encouraged to delete them when personal information may be collected. This is a reasonable expectation from employees, even if this can be found in workplace communications. This can help protect employee privacy and prevent productivity theater.

In most locations, employers do not have the right to monitor employee activities without consent and cannot install employee monitoring software without their employees’ knowledge.

Workplace privacy examples

There are several ways employers can inadvertently violate team members’ privacy, as well as some overt actions that are not appropriate. Workplace privacy rights help companies figure out what is and isn’t okay.

Let’s look at a few workplace privacy examples of obvious breaches and some that might not be apparent. As with any privacy laws and regulations, please note that these are examples and that you will face nuances for your team members and organization. So, the specific privacy cases you may encounter in the workplace will be unique to your organization.

Use of name or likeness

Generally, you need your employees’ permission before using their names or likeness in public-facing materials. This often focuses on the use of their name or photo in marketing materials, where you may need to get consent.

Defamation or false light

False light is an accusation that someone has misrepresented the employee in a way they find objectionable. In the workplace, this often involves an opinion that the team member doesn’t express, causes emotional distress, or goes against their beliefs. 

So, an employer cannot say, “John Doe doesn’t believe a union would be good for you,” without getting John Doe’s specific permission for that statement.

Defamation is similar but may also involve how the employer describes John. So, if it incorrectly says John Doe is stealing from the breakroom or uses his photo on a flier about time theft, it invades his privacy and harms his reputation.

Disclosure of private information

An employer can’t disclose private information in a public way. What information is covered and what is considered public disclosure can vary significantly.

One example would be if an employee requests a leave of absence or uses PTO due to a medical procedure, and then the company posts a “good luck” message about the procedure on social media without the employee’s permission.

Medical information is typically private, so it requires affirmative consent to share.

Intrusion into personal seclusion or solitude

People have expectations of privacy in many settings, and companies cannot violate these. So, if there is a dressing room or restroom in your workplace, the employer cannot place cameras or recording devices in those rooms. 

Questions that an employer asks may also fall into this category. In many locations, your employer cannot ask about your sexual orientation or habits without violating workplace privacy laws.

Privacy in the workplace

Privacy in the workplace cases: Ethics and laws

Creating an ethical, supportive, and inclusive workplace environment that respects your employees’ privacy is essential as a remote business owner.

This means having clear policies that address privacy-related issues such as data privacy, internet usage, and monitoring. Additionally, ethical workplace privacy means acknowledging and respecting employees’ rights to use their work devices for personal use.

Remote-first organizations with team members across the globe should adopt an ethical framework prioritizing the laws and regulations of the location where team members have the most privacy protections.

Create policies that meet the most severe guidelines, and you’ll be well-positioned to maintain worker privacy. As always, have a professional review every workplace policy for every location where you hire so that you’re in full compliance.

Privacy issues in the workplace: United States

In the U.S., employees’ rights to privacy at work are protected under state and federal law. 

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act protects the privacy of employees’ emails, text messages, and other communications. The National Labor Relations Board creates workplace privacy rules designed to support employee organization and representation.

There are also well-known federal laws, such as the HIPAA Privacy Rule, and state efforts like the California Privacy Rights Act — which is part of the California Consumer Privacy Act.

You may want to review other laws, such as state laws on employee GPS tracking.

Privacy in workplace cases: Europe

In the European Union, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) protects people’s privacy.

This includes many workplace provisions. Its Article 88 offers clear data requirements in the context of work, offers notices relating to collective agreements, and adds information or data protections to aspects of work that were once chiefly secured under labor laws.

When employers monitor employees, employees have the right to know what personal data the company collects. They also have rights related to the correction or deletion of that data. Workplaces have to adhere to many of these requirements. There are also some court cases noting a high threshold for termination, creating a need for very specific governance language in company handbooks.

Video monitoring in the EU has similar strict implementation and data collection practices. In some countries, video cameras or recordings cannot be focused on a particular employee. In France, video monitoring information must be provided to a local, public body if the video captures any private space.

Video and communications are core privacy issues in the workplace if you’re considering remote work and related monitoring tools.

See this summary of EU workplace legislation to start learning about workplace privacy and protection requirements for any staff in the EU.

Avoiding the nightmarish loss of workplace privacy

Why is workplace privacy important?

Workplace privacy can be a strong positive or negative for an organization. Companies can leverage it to support people, or they can fail at it and be listed among the casualties of the loss of workplace privacy.

A lack of privacy can hinder your team’s autonomy and drive down perceptions of safety and value in the workplace. This may harm productivity and job satisfaction, reducing morale and profitability.

On the other hand, employers that are familiar with rights and offer significant privacy protections can achieve increased engagement and satisfaction levels. Your team is also more likely to operate autonomously and successfully, which can drive growth.

Getting workplace privacy right and using it as a tool to support staff is a major win-win for organizations, but you must be purposeful about privacy in workplace ethics that you follow.

Does the privacy of your workplace improve how well you do your job? Did we miss one of your go-to workplace privacy examples? Let us know your thoughts on the intersection between privacy and productivity in the comments below.

Category: Management