This chapter addresses the legal aspects of employee privacy in virtual workplaces. The body of law regarding employee workplace privacy that has evolved over the years establishes a minimal expectation of privacy on the part of the employee (meaning employers have been found guilty of violating employee privacy only in rare and extreme cases). No one has yet examined whether virtual workplaces alter the fundamental assumptions underlying employee privacy rights. By reviewing the current status of employee privacy law and juxtaposing it with virtual workplace environments, with a particular focus on communication technologies, this chapter seeks to provide guidance for the privacy issues that are sure to arise with the growth and development of virtual workplaces.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Hostile Work Environment: Created by conduct, such as through offensive or obscene e-mail messages, that has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating or hostile working environment, based on the target individual’s race, gender, religion, sex, or national origin. An employer that allows a hostile work environment to exist will be in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (see below).
Employment-At-Will: Legal doctrine under which employment may be terminated by either the employer or the employee, at any time, with or without cause. The majority of employees in the United States are “at will.” The employment at will doctrine is not absolute (see “wrongful discharge” below).
Stored Communications Act (SCA): A part of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (see above) and the Federal Wiretap Law, prohibits certain access to stored communications (18 U.S.C. § § 2701-2711).
Wrongful Discharge: Termination of a worker’s employment that violates a law or employment contract. Where an employee is considered “at will” (see above), termination of the worker’s employment may be a wrongful discharge if the termination violates public policy, such as terminating the employee because the employee obeyed the law, refused to break the law on the employer’s behalf, or, possibly, as a result of information the employer gained by violating the employee’s right of privacy.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Federal legislation that prohibits employers from discriminating against any individual with respect to his/her compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin (42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1).
Invasion of Privacy: In the workplace privacy context, generally results from an intrusion upon seclusion; an unreasonable and highly offensive intrusion upon an individual’s private affairs.
Privacy: Traditionally, the notion that one has the right to be left alone. Recognized under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as protecting individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. In the private sector, protects against unreasonable intrusions upon seclusion (see above).
Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA): A part of what is generally referred to as the Federal Wiretap Law, prohibits the interception of wire, oral, and electronic communications (18 U.S.C. § § 2510-2521).