Employer Use of Private Employee Information

We’ve been looking at a lot of data privacy standards over the last few weeks. These various principles and guidelines offer a broad overview of industry best practices that can often be applied to workforce data. But the fact is that the employer/employee relationship remains fraught with boundary issues when it comes to collecting and using private information appropriately. The website EPIC.org has a very comprehensive rundown of current news and debates over this topic. You can find their workplace privacy page here.

Courts Often Side with Employees about Data Privacy

In 2010, the New Jersey Supreme Court determined that an employee’s attorney-client privilege was violated when her employer read private emails transmitted on a company laptop. The worker was using a password-protected account on a web-based email service (not the employer’s internal email platform) and so had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

In 2009, a federal appeals court determined that police officers had their privacy violated when personal text messages sent via employer-provided pagers were examined by the City. The employer in this case was making an effort to enforce a policy against personal use of City equipment and this unfortunately backfired.

Many court cases involving employers monitoring social media postings and other personal online activities have led to defeat for businesses. These decisions are an indication that although employers may notify workers that all communications could be monitored, this does not mean such policies will always be supported by the courts.

How Much Data is Too Much?

It is important for employers to take into consideration not just data privacy standards, but also the purpose behind these policies. One beneficial guiding principle might be to protect the worker’s private information while enabling the company to collect necessary data for effective and compliant workforce management (such as the information typically collected using Universal Onboarding software). When this approach is followed both in letter and spirit, there is likely to be little conflict between employers and employees regarding how data is collected and used.

What about the wealth of information available about workers by searching the net? Although more knowledge may lead to better decision making in some cases, overreaching in the collection of private employee information also tends to lead to litigation for discrimination. This is definitely an area where legal counsel coupled with common sense (putting yourself in the average worker’s shoes) is needed for good decision making.

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