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Workplace Privacy: Employee Rights and Employer Responsibilities

Workplace privacy refers to protecting employees’ personal information and activities while they are on the job. It includes everything from email communications and internet usage to personal data stored on company systems. It’s about balancing employee rights with business interests.

Different jurisdictions have different rights and responsibilities for employees and employers.  

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The Importance of Workplace Privacy

The importance of workplace privacy cannot be overstated. Respecting employees’ privacy rights not only fosters a sense of trust and loyalty, but it also promotes a healthy work environment.

When employees feel that their personal information and activities are protected, they are more likely to be productive and engaged in their work. Furthermore, safeguarding workplace privacy is crucial for maintaining compliance with legal and ethical standards, as well as protecting sensitive company data from unauthorized access or misuse.

Surveillance and monitoring have consequences on employee morale and productivity. 39% of employees under surveillance see their productivity improve as a result of monitoring software implementation. However, 22% believe that being watched hinders their effectiveness, pointing to stress or distraction. In terms of company morale, 43% believe surveillance negatively impacts the overall spirit and culture of the company, while only 29% say it positively affects it.

Workplace Privacy For Remote Workers

According to Forbes research, hybrid workers report higher levels of monitoring, with 48 percent stating that their employer observes their online activities.

Fully remote employees, however, face a similar level of scrutiny in 37% of cases. Based on this data, employers monitor online behavior more closely when employees are working from in the office.

It is concerning that there is no formal communication about surveillance policies. Only 32% of employees report receiving clear guidelines or policies regarding monitoring their online activities at work.

There are questions regarding the awareness and consent of employees regarding these types of practices because of this lack of transparency.

Employee Rights: What You Need to Know

Employee Rights In the EU:

  1. Strict Data Protection: The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) sets a high standard for data protection, giving employees significant rights over their personal data. Employers must obtain consent for data processing and provide clear reasons for data collection.

  2. Monitoring: Employee monitoring is highly regulated. Employers must have a legitimate interest for monitoring and must ensure that employees’ privacy rights are protected. Employees must be informed about the monitoring, and explicit consent is often required. Covert monitoring is generally prohibited unless it is a last resort for preventing serious offenses. Monitoring shouldn’t be intrusive, for example by using traffic data (about routing, duration, or timing of messages) rather than accessing email content.

  3. Right to Access and Rectify: Employees have the right to access their data and request corrections if it’s inaccurate. They can also request deletion of their data under certain circumstances​​.

  4. Surveillance Regulations: Monitoring employee activities requires clear justification and transparency. Covert surveillance is generally prohibited unless it’s a last resort to prevent serious offenses​​.

  5. The Transparent Working Conditions Directive (EU) 2019/1152 requires employers to provide clear and comprehensive information about working conditions. This includes details about pay, work hours, and other key aspects of employment​.

EU Employer Responsibilities under GDPR

  • Employers must have a legal basis to process employee personal data, such as consent or contractual necessity.

  • Employers must ensure that employees consent freely to specific use, purpose, or processing of data. Silence or inaction by employees, or consent included in standard employment contracts or data protection policies, does not meet the standard.

    Employers must record the grounds on which they will be processing each separate category of employee data.

  • Employees are using their own devices and providing them with digital devices has data protection implications. A comprehensive internet, social media, and communications policy must govern permitted data usage, including email and internet issues.

  • Employers must be transparent about employee data collection, use, and safeguarding.

  • Employers must respect employees’ data protection rights, including the right to access, rectify, erase, or transfer their personal data.

  • Employers must implement appropriate technical and organizational measures to protect employee data.

  • Employers must demonstrate data protection compliance by training, auditing and documenting processing activities

united states flag

Employee Rights in the US:

  • Varied State Laws: Privacy protections vary widely by state. Some states have robust laws, while others have minimal regulations. There is no federal equivalent to the GDPR​.

  • Limited Privacy Expectations: Employees often have limited expectations of privacy, especially regarding communications and activities conducted on company devices. The majority of employee monitoring methods are deemed legal within the United States. Except Connecticut and Delaware which have specific laws requiring employers to notify employees before monitoring their email or internet usage.

US Employer Privacy Responsibilities

  • Employers should have clear policies on email monitoring, internet usage, and company devices/property.

  • Notifying employees of monitoring can reduce their privacy expectations.

  • Employers should avoid excessive or overly invasive monitoring of personal items like bags or lockers.

Finding the Balance

The key to balancing employee rights and employer responsibilities lies in transparency and communication. When both sides understand each other’s needs and expectations, it’s easier to create a respectful and productive work environment.

In the EU, the balance is more regulated, with stringent laws ensuring employee rights are protected and employers adhering to strict data protection standards​​.

In the US, the approach is more flexible, with significant variation across states and industries. Employers have more freedom but must navigate a patchwork of laws and regulations

Noa Kahalon
COO at hoggo

Noa is a certified CIPM, CIPP/E, and a Fellow of Information Privacy (FIP) from the IAPP. Her background consists of marketing, project management, operations, and law. She is the co-founder and COO of hoggo, which builds transparency around data privacy practices.