Employment Law -- Employee

Using Your Computer at Work: Employee Rights

Key Takeaways

  • Employers are generally free to monitor and read employees’ email messages on work accounts or sent on work-provided computers.
  • Personal device usage on company wifi or networks may also be subject to workplace surveillance.
  • Misusing company-provided property or violating your employment policies can be grounds for dismissal.

Working all day at a computer, you may need some time to get some personal things done. You may have to take personal time to take care of child care, make a medical appointment, or respond to an emergency. During work, you may use your work computer to send a personal email or send a message. Unfortunately, your employer may be monitoring you, even for personal activity.

Employers have a lot of power when monitoring employee activity during the workday. However, employees still have some privacy rights, even when on the job. This article has information about workplace privacy rights. However, privacy laws can vary by state. If you have questions about your legal privacy when using your computer at work, talk to an experienced employment lawyer.

Do You Have Privacy Rights at Work?

Most workplaces rely on computers for at least some duties. Employers generally have the discretion to monitor and restrict employees’ personal computer usage. You could get fired if you violate your employer’s policies regarding personal computer usage. 

However, under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), an employer cannot monitor or record your phone calls on your personal phone. Your employer can only monitor employee communications if there is a legitimate business purpose or if you consent. The ECPA also applies to email and electronically stored data.

However, there are exceptions during work time or with work equipment. An employer has a legitimate business purpose in monitoring messages during work time or using workplace computers. Workers don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy when using the employer’s equipment, wifi, and computer networks.

Can Your Employer Read Your Emails?

In most cases, work email accounts are not subject to any personal privacy laws. As a result, employers are generally free to monitor and read employees’ email messages. Emails sent using a workplace computer are the property of the employer. 

Employers may have an interest in monitoring email messages to and from employees. This includes making sure employees are productive or to stop disclosing confidential information.

Can Your Employer Monitor Internet Usage at Work?

Your internet use in the workplace is subject to the same scrutiny as email messages. Employers generally can track your internet usage, including:

  • How much time you spend online
  • Which websites you visit
  • Downloading and streaming activity

An employer also may restrict your access to the internet or certain websites. Some employers prohibit the personal use of workplace computers altogether. Generally, employers own the company computers and the data transmitted to and from the computers.

Companies also have a security interest in employees’ computer and cell phone usage. Computer systems are vulnerable to viruses and malware.

What Are Your Written Work Policies for Computer Usage?

Employers generally have written policies regarding personal computer usage. Your employee handbook may place you on notice of your employer’s stance when using a workplace computer for personal purposes.

Even without written policies, the law generally sides with employers monitoring computer usage. Check your company’s monitoring policies to see how they handle computer and internet activity while at work. Generally, you should assume your employer has the right to monitor computer use, work email, and internet activity while at work.

Do You Have Privacy When You Are Working From Home?

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, many jobs have transitioned to full-time or part-time remote work. There are some downsides to remote working. It can be harder to separate home life and work life. It may also allow your employer to monitor certain work activity, even when you are in your own home.

Many companies have the right to monitor any activity involving the use of company equipment and company systems. This can include your company-provided laptop, webcam, microphone, and headsets. If you want to keep things private when you are working from home, make sure you use your own personal equipment for personal use.

Can You Be Fired for Misuse of Your Work Computer? 

Misusing company property or violating your employment policies can be grounds for dismissal. Most jobs are on an at-will basis. This means your employer can fire you for any reason or no reason at all. You can also leave most jobs without having to give notice. However, an employer cannot fire you in violation of your civil rights.

How Can a Lawyer Stop Privacy Violations?

Some employers think they can get away with any type of monitoring policy just because you are an employee. You have legal rights and protections against illegal privacy violations. You also have whistleblower protections if you report illegal activity by your employer.

An employment law attorney can review your case and give you legal advice about your workplace privacy rights. Your lawyer may be able to help you recover compensation, including lost wages, lost benefits, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees.

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