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JUNE 9, 2000

Worker Privacy: When to Butt Out

It may be legal to monitor employees, but that doesn't mean you should


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Management Archive

In matters of workplace privacy, employers hold most of the cards. Although state laws vary, in general it's perfectly legal to monitor phone calls, dig through files, or read e-mail. But if you get sued for snooping, a judge will consider whether employees had a "reasonable expectation of privacy." So make privacy policies as clear as possible.

Managers at, an online retailer in Traverse City, Mich., allow their 60 employees to use the Web for personal reasons, as long as they don't do anything abusive or illegal. To help ensure that they don't, the company has an Internet and e-mail policy that allows for the monitoring of online activity. Acting on a complaint, managers recently tracked a worker sending e-mail under someone else's name without permission. He was fired. Another employee was disciplined after a search of computer files found he was sending inappropriate messages to women in the office. "It's important that employees know the rules, so there's no question as to what is acceptable or unacceptable," says Nicole Runyon, director of human resources.

For answers about workplace privacy, check out Or try the "Dear Esquire" section on FindLaw Professional's site,, provides sample policy statements. Lycos Small Business offers a customizable privacy policy.

In Small Business Legal Smarts (Bloomberg Press, 1998), author Deborah L. Jacobs advises that the best way to avoid a privacy suit is to have a valid business reason for conducting a search.

By Alison Stein Wellner


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