As an employer, you might want some kind of surveillance in the workplace. But what is legal and what is allowed?
Is it okay to inform employees regarding cameras in the office? Cameras and other forms of surveillance in the workplace are legal. Most employers will use video cameras for security purposes and to prevent theft of office equipment. This is permissible as long as the employer informs the employees regarding the surveillance measures. There are legal limits, however, to how employers can use any form of surveillance.
It is common to use video cameras in the workplace today as long as workers are aware of such surveillance. While most of the time employers use video surveillance for their own interests like to prevent theft within the premises, video surveillance is also used to keep employees safe when they are at work.
There are legal boundaries however, that employers know better than to cross when it comes to how and where to use workplace surveillance. An employer, for instance, cannot use cameras to monitor their workers’ union activities. Federal wiretap law dictates that employers can’t under any circumstances record oral conversations which is why surveillance cameras don’t have audio.
Employees should pay close attention to the existing company policies by going through the employee handbook which can address camera surveillance at work as well as the state laws on the same.
If an employer is to put surveillance cameras in the workplace, there must be legitimate reasons for doing so in a way that the cameras are not an invasion of the employees’ privacy.
If as an employer, you suspect that your employees are not engaging in work-related activities while on the clock and instead are engaging in unlawful activities that may affect the business, its clients and other employees, it would be within the law to have cameras at work. (Read our suggestions on workplace productivity and how can you enhance employee productivity)
Avert Internal Theft
Sometimes theft in the workplace can be an issue and in such a case, an employer has every right to have surveillance cameras within the working premises.
If an employer suspects that employees are manipulating time clocks or worse stealing goods and office equipment, then it is within the law to keep an eye on them, as long as state laws allow it.
Such recordings can be used as evidence should such cases make it to the courts.
Prevent External Theft
In the workplace, theft doesn’t have to be internal only. Sometimes like in shopping malls, some customers may be involved in theft and as such, the employer has every right to have surveillance cameras to prevent such activities that may affect the business in the long run.
To Ensure the Safety of Employees and Customers
Security threatens are common especially at work and as such the security of your customers and employees remains the number one priority.
Most of the time such security threats come from people who gain illegal access to the premises which is what security cameras monitor when they are installed at work. (We have written a related article - 25 physical security tips for employees)
As noted, employers have a right to place cameras in the office if it is done for a legitimate reason.
As such, it’s no surprise to find cameras in some common workplace areas like sales floors, bank counters, store aisles as well as exists for security, to prevent internal and external theft and to ensure that employees are doing what is expected of them when at work.
Placing cameras in such areas where there is little or no expectation of privacy on the employees’ side is accepted by the law.
However, there is a limit, on how far the employer can go in terms of video and camera surveillance.
In some states, placing surveillance cameras in areas where the employee is expected to have some privacy is a violation of the law. Such areas include break rooms, washrooms and changing rooms.
The specific areas that cameras can be placed at varies from one state to another. As such, you need to consult with the labor agency, an attorney or local employers to find out to what length you can go to with video and camera surveillance at work.
There are also laws put in place to protect the privacy of customers and clients alike. For instance, the law limits how a business can use the personal information of their customers and clients, requiring businesses to maintain their confidentiality, by not sharing information like medical records and social security numbers.
At the same time use of cameras that record audio conversations, also violates the employee’s privacy and is protected under federal wiretapping laws whether there was a legitimate reason or not.
At the end of it all, regardless of why you want to have cameras at work, employees must be made aware that there are cameras being used in the workplace.
The laws on the use of cameras in the workplace are not clearly stipulated in all states, which makes it difficult to determine what is lawful and what could get you in trouble with the law.
So what happens if you are operating a business in a state where the law doesn’t clearly stipulate if cameras in the office are allowed or prohibited? Chances are you will be dealing with a lot of legal issues if an employee is to file a claim regarding the same unless you can prove that the cameras were used for legitimate reasons.
In such a case, the court will look at the employee’s privacy expectations in order to determine if there was any privacy that was violated. If the reasonable privacy expectations of the employee were violated in any way, then the employers will be held accountable.
Monitoring Union Activities
It is illegal for an employer to use cameras to monitor the union activities which include union conversations and meetings. Should an employer choose to do so, they should discuss it with the union employees prior to recording such activities as stipulated in the National Labor Relations Act.
In addition to that, employers should never in any way use cameras to intimidate existing or prospective members of such unions.
Hidden Cameras and Notice Requirements
Installing video surveillance at work without the employees being in the know and use of hidden cameras is a violation of the employees’ privacy.
In some states, informing the employees of video and camera surveillance when at work is a mandatory requirement and courts in some other states offer the same protection to employees. (We have written a related article - efficient workplace security devices)
Due to that, employers are advised if not required to inform their employees of the existence of cameras within the premises. In various states, however, it should be noted that courts allow the employers to use hidden cameras in the workplace but under specific circumstances.
In the end, however, if an employer uses cameras in appropriate locations like bathrooms and changing rooms, violates the requirements to inform employees or uses the cameras inappropriately in a way that violates the privacy and safety of the employee, they are liable to legal action and lawsuits.
If you are an employer and are thinking about installing cameras in the office whether for legitimate reasons or not, you should familiarize yourself first with both federal and state laws regarding camera surveillance at work.
You can contact the state’s labor department or the U.S. Department of Labor to learn more about such laws.
You should also be prepared for resistance as well as resentment from the employees hence the need to inform them of the decision in a way that doesn’t seem like you are questioning their loyalty or character. (Read more on what is workplace privacy)
Can an employer record their employees at work? The law dictates that it is illegal for an employer to listen to their employees’ conversations or even record them for whatever reason. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act allows for employers to listen in on business calls but never should they record such conversations or listen to private ones.
Can an employer insist on taking photos of their employees? Something as simple as taking an employee’s photo for a legitimate reason or not is seen as a violation of their privacy since such a photo would be classified as personal information. An employer is required to seek consent from the employee and inform them of how they intend to use the photo.
Can an employer search the employee’s personal vehicle? An employer is legally allowed to search an employee’s personal vehicle only if it is parked within the premises and the employee is aware that by entering the premises their vehicles are liable to being searched.
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