New technologies allow managers to spy on workers more easily than ever, whether by monitoring phone lines to measure the number of calls a telemarketer makes per hour or by reviewing electronic-mail files for harassing messages. Now Congress is considering a bill that would limit electronic surveillance in the workplace. Some observers believe the bill, sponsored in the Senate by Paul Simon (D-Illinois), could be passed this year.
The bill would require a company to tell new hires that it practices monitoring and to indicate the two-hour time frame each week within which monitoring would take place. Employers could monitor work only. Workers would be protected from almost any surveillance after they've spent five years with their companies. Exceptions would be made for employees on probation or under suspicion of illegal activity.
Juan Portillo, CEO of Tramex, a $19-million travel agency in Austin, recently installed a phone system that allows him to monitor his agents' calls, with their knowledge. The system works well for quality control, he says. Of course, it wouldn't thwart any serious wrongdoing, but Portillo says he handles that up front the best he can by hiring experienced agents.
The bill is the latest sign of heightened interest in workplace-privacy rights. In the past, workers gave up much of their privacy when they went to work. That changed slightly with the Electronic Communication Privacy Act of 1986, which protects purely personal communication. Passage of the Simon bill would extend that.
The Society for Human Resource Management (703-548-3440) has published a free legal report on workplace privacy, which details current law concerning workplace searches and electronic surveillance. This area of the law is changing quickly, so direct specific questions to an experienced lawyer.* * *