The expense of preventing fraud is minimal compared to the cost of cleaning up after fraud has been committed. One common fraud deterrent is to monitor employees on the job. But are you legally entitled to monitor employees? The answer is “sometimes.” One thing is certain: You must follow current employment law to the letter.
Two competing interests
Many laws apply to employees’ privacy rights. In general, they attempt to balance employers’ interests in minimizing losses and injuries and maximizing production with employees’ interests in being free from intrusion into their private affairs.
By adopting and clearly communicating employment policies, your company can, within limits, establish its authority to conduct searches and surveillance that might otherwise be deemed intrusive. But before you state your policies, check with your attorney to ensure they don’t violate any federal or state laws.
In most cases, federal law allows employers to take the following actions (but keep in mind that some state laws may be more restrictive):
Electronic activities monitoring. As a general rule, you can’t monitor employees’ use of electronic devices (including tracking Internet use) without their knowledge. But there are two notable exceptions. First, you can monitor if you have a legitimate business need to do so (for example, to record a client’s buy/sell instructions to a stockbroker). The second exception is when one party to a communication consents to the monitoring. If your company clearly states a policy to monitor communications, an employee is usually considered to have consented by remaining in the job.
Phone call monitoring. You’re generally allowed to monitor business-related phone conversations to and from the workplace. However, you can’t monitor personal calls and must hang up as soon as it’s apparent the call isn’t work-related, unless the employee has given you permission to listen in.
Physical searches. Exercise extreme caution before searching an employee’s person. If you feel a body search is necessary, don’t threaten or apply physical force or prevent the employee from leaving the room or workplace. Aside from possible referral to law enforcement, keep the search results confidential. This is to prevent leaks that could form the basis for libel or slander suits.
Surveillance. You can install cameras in your company’s offices or production areas, but usually not in “private” areas such as restrooms and locker rooms. As with other searches, surveillance records must be kept confidential. Only individuals who must know the information to properly perform their duties should have access to evidence of possible wrongdoing.
Avoiding land mines
Protecting your company from fraud while also adhering to employee privacy regulations can be challenging. To avoid legal land mines, develop your company’s policies with the help of an employment law attorney.