What are my privacy rights as an employee?

Laws exist to protect an employee’s right to privacy. An employer generally may not disclose information to co-workers or anyone outside the company to the extent such information is acquired only because of the employment relationship and it would be offensive to an ordinary and reasonable person unless the information would be of reasonable concern to the public. Thus, an employer could disclose information suggesting that one of its employees may be involved in some sort of criminal activity or may be planning to do harm to someone’s welfare or property.  

But an employer usually cannot disclose an employee’s social security number or what it has learned about an employee’s problems with alcoholism or about an employee’s genetics, investments, health issues, or other similar matters generally accepted as being private in nature.

Likewise, an employee generally is free from unreasonable searches in the areas of the workplace in which a “reasonable expectation of privacy” may exist. For example, employees usually can expect that their employers cannot insist on searching a purse, handbag, or wallet; their lockers where they are allowed to use their own locks to secure their belongings; or their body cavities or fluids (except in connection with a drug-testing policy that complies with the law).

Congress passed the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) to safeguard an employee’s medical information by prohibiting an employer from disclosing confidential medical information it receives concerning its employees.

When it comes to regulating telephone use and employee access to the Internet and company computers, employees should know that employers in Ohio generally have the privilege of monitoring such use. This includes allowing employers to screen and read e-mail, listen to voicemail messages, and monitor telephone calls under certain circumstances, particularly for the purposes of preventing employee theft or monitoring an employee’s performance.

Criminal background checks generally involve a review of public records and such activity by an employer usually would not constitute an unreasonable invasion of the privacy rights of an employee or a job applicant.

An employer cannot conduct a credit check on an employee or job applicant without first notifying the employee (in the manner prescribed by law) and receiving written permission to do so. It would be unlawful for an employer to use the results of a credit check against an employee without giving the employee a copy of the report and offering an opportunity for the employee to challenge the results of the report or the author of that report.

Another question that frequently comes up is whether an employee may be compelled—under threat of job loss—to submit to a lie detector test (polygraph), and if an employer can retaliate against an employee or job applicant for refusing to submit to such a test.

An employee lawfully can be asked to submit to a polygraph to the extent he or she is involved in a “workplace incident” (or is suspected, on reasonable grounds, of being involved) where the employer’s interests were adversely affected by that “workplace incident.” The law exempts certain types of employers from the ban on requiring employees and job applicants to submit to lie detector tests.