Many employers are unaware of their employee’s rights when it comes to privacy and confidentiality at work. This is a very delicate area for both employers and employees. They should know their rights to avoid legal problems. This is especially relevant in the context of the General Data Protection Regulation which will start to apply across the EU countries from May 2018.
There are three main privacy rights that employees have, which both an employer and employee must respect – (a) use of telephone and email (b) surveillance and (c) the right to protect personal data.
In practical terms, an employer is obliged to allow employees privacy and help them feel comfortable in the office. The employer should refrain from any actions that could invade employees privacy. This is particularly relevant with the GDPR, which introduces new obligations on the employer in relation to processing of personal data.
Personal telephones and email
In general, an employer needs to follow the guidelines outlined in the work rules and respect the private life of an employee. This means that throughout the working day, employees are allowed to use telephone and email for private purposes, not only during break times but also throughout the day. Of course, the usage of them needs to be rational and employees cannot waste too much of their worktime. Otherwise, they can be subject to possible disciplinary action.
Monitoring of employees
With regards to surveillance, employers are allowed to monitor their employees throughout the working day. It is not uncommon for employers to install cameras to monitor their employees. However, there are limitations (especially in terms of the GDPR) on what is allowed to be recorded or listened to. This means that there must be a just cause for monitoring, they must make their employees fully aware that they are being monitored and the reasons why, and only selected people can be able to access any recorded data.
Employers are allowed to monitor employees in a professional manner, such as when working at desks. But an employer is not allowed to hide cameras in the office areas, as these places are intended for staff to relax over lunch or during their breaks. An employer also cannot just hide cameras under the desks or behind the photocopier – they must be on display and evident to all staff. If employees discover that their conversations and movements are being monitored, this can lead to unnecessary stress, which has the potential to lead to health complications in an individual. It can also reflect badly upon the employer.
If an employer does not comply with the above rules then they are in breach of the data protection rules (soon to be the GDPR). The only occasion when an employer can conduct covert surveillance is if they have evidence of criminal activity.
Personal data protection
It is of vital importance that employee information and files are kept away from public access. Even from the very beginning when someone applies for a job, an employer can gain knowledge of personal data including name, address and contact details. If that person goes on to become a member of staff, an employer will probably find out their next of kin, ethnic origin, sexuality, religious beliefs and more – this must all be kept strictly confidential. By law employers are not allowed to misuse or broadcast any of this information. If an employer is thought to have misused an employee’s personal data, they are in breach of the law and this can lead to a court case.
Meanwhile, an employee has the right to know what their personal details are being used for, if any checks have been carried out on them, the results of any checks, exactly what the employer knows about them, whether their details are secure, and finally they have the right to refuse any tests or checks that have no business purpose.
Likewise, the employee must also protect any sensitive data about the company they work for and not pass anything on to a third party. Breach of this can lead to disciplinary action and even dismissal.
Protecting the privacy of an employee is incredibly important for all employers. Legal factors must be considered if an employer intends to conduct surveillance and monitor his employees. If there is just cause for an employer to do so, and employees are fully informed, most employees will not strongly object to the idea. This is especially true if it is being done for security and safety reasons. The worst thing an employer can do is hide it from their staff – this can lead to all sorts of difficulties and may result in legal proceedings.
Given the seriousness of the sanctions that the GDPR is going to impose, it is important for employers to be in compliance with the relevant privacy and confidentiality regulations.
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