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What are your privacy rights in the workplace?

Although California workers enjoy more protections than workers in many other states, that doesn’t stop every employer from “pushing the envelope” when it comes to their employees’ rights – including the right to a certain amount of privacy.

The best way to protect your rights is to make sure that you understand the limits that the law places on your employer’s behavior. Here are some of the basics:

Surveillance cameras are okay – up to a point

It’s generally legal for an employer to put video surveillance cameras up in the common areas of the workplace, so long as employees are notified that they’re there. It’s illegal (and criminal), however, for an employer to put cameras up in areas where there’s a reasonable expectation of privacy. That means, for example, that your employer may be able to put cameras up in the stock room or breakroom, but they cannot put them up in the bathrooms or the company locker room where people change in and out of work clothes.

Monitoring your electronic usage is very limited

Generally speaking, your employer can freely poke around through emails, chat group messages and other communications that are made on company-owned electronics, including cell phones and computers. It’s a different story, however, when it comes to your personal electronic devices – even if you use them at work. Your employer has no right to demand access to those private communications or even ask you to unlock your phone.

Employers cannot demand information about your social media use

You have significant protections regarding your social media accounts in this state. California was the third state in the nation to enact laws that specifically forbid employers from demanding access to an employee’s or job applicant’s social media usernames or passwords.

The reasons employers may try to cross boundaries and intrude on their employees’ privacy may vary – whether it’s because they suspect an employee of some wrongdoing or they are trying to monitor unionization attempts – but employees need to be on guard. Gone are the days when bosses could intrude on and try to control every aspect of an employee’s life at will, as workers can hold an employer accountable when they’ve violated their reasonable privacy expectations.


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