For all businesses, especially small companies, the best way to approach potential legal issues is proactively: spending time crafting policies and procedures today can save significant headaches-and attorney fees-down the road. This is especially true for the thorny issue of privacy in the workplace.
While the right to privacy isn't enumerated specifically in the Constitution, it remains a closely guarded prerogative for most Americans. Harris polls consistently show that more than 85 percent of respondents are concerned about the erosion of privacy and rank it among their most cherished freedoms.
Indeed, privacy rights often are taken for granted-many employees believe, for example, that they extend into the workplace, which is not necessarily the case. For business owners, the notion of balancing employee privacy with business interests is a touchy legal subject, but a vital one to address, especially in the age of e-mail and widespread employee Internet access.
Generally, it is important for employees to recognize that their privacy at work is restricted. For business owners, it's a matter of liability: the courts have found employers liable in sexual- and racialharassment cases, for example, for inadequately policing material transmitted by employees via e-mail or telephone.
At the same time, however, smaller firms don't have the legal and financial resources of a large corporation. They are illequipped to afford discrimination or harassment lawsuits or other legal action related to the unlawful acts of its employees. To avoid this, companies must demonstrate that they take reasonable action to monitor employee activity and immediate steps to correct any problematic behavior.
Appropriation of a person's name or likeness;
Publication of private facts;
Publication that places a person in a false light; and
Unreasonable intrusion upon the seclusion of another, which includes tactics-like telephone surveillance-that would be considered unduly offensive to a reasonable person.
Generally, if your policy steers clear of the above-mentioned issues and is applied equitably to all employees, it is appropriate and enforceable.
Magid is an assistant professor of business law at the IU Kelley School of Business Indianapolis. Her major fields of expertise include employment and technology law.