Over the past 15 years, electronic and computer technology has transformed the workplace. Few businesses can operate today without the use of Internet technology for communications, research, business growth, economic strategizing and more. However, along with the benefits of instant global connectivity come some risks. Today, most employers find themselves trying to balance the privacy rights of their staff against their own right to know if valuable office hours are being spent posting political rants on Huff Po.

In fact, many employees admit to an irresistible urge to surf the Internet during work hours, and most do not realize the extent of the time they spend conducting personal business online during work hours. The cumulative downtime is costing employers big time, and lost productivity is only a part of the problem. Employers have wasted no time acquiring new technology to monitor and block employee Internet use – a practice that seems to create more questions than solutions; many employers and employees are unaware of their rights.

Can an employer read employees’ emails and monitor employees’ Internet usage?

Employers are generally free to monitor employee’s email content and Internet use. That includes reading employees’ emails. In fact, since this type of monitoring is still unregulated, employers can read employee emails, listen to employee voice mails, and observe the websites employees visit throughout the course of the day.

Despite the fact that employers have this level of monitoring power, they should approach monitoring openly, notifying employees that their email accounts and Internet usage is under surveillance at all times. If employers are up front with employees regarding their monitoring policies, there will be no misunderstanding or expectation of privacy when it comes to the use of company computers, phones, Internet service or workspace. Instead of breeding an atmosphere of secrecy, and in the spirit of giving everyone fair warning, full disclosure of the company’s monitoring policies empowers employees to refocus attention on their jobs.

Are Surveillance Cameras and Video Equipment in Workspaces Legal?

In addition to online surveillance of staff activities, many employers are also using cameras and video surveillance to keep track of the goings-on within their brick-and-mortars. Although the primary reason for installing surveillance equipment is theft prevention, employers are also monitoring employee activities while they’re “on the clock.” Those employees who take extended smoke breaks, or spend chunks of their day away from their desks are now faced with making changes to their time management skills.

If employees are aware that they’re being monitored, they’re probably more likely to get back to the business of being productive. From a practical standpoint, it serves the employer well to avoid micro-managing and overly regulating Internet usage and video surveillance, as employees will quickly come to resent the intrusion and morale will decline – not a recipe for maximizing productivity.

Can employers search employees?

An employer’s right to physically search an employee depends on the circumstances. If the workplace is a high-risk security area, or if a theft has been discovered, the employer is probably within the law to search the employee as long as the search is not too invasive. If the company has an employee handbook, it may contain specific language regarding searches. If the employer makes a habit of conducting personal searches without reasonable cause, or singles out one employee in particular for repeated searches, the legality of their actions may be called into question.

Can employers search employee work stations or desks?

Employers usually do have the right to search an employee’s desk, workspace, office or locker. Unless the employee is a member of a union that protects workers’ spaces from searches, all work spaces technically belong to the employer. Employees should have no expectation of privacy in their workspace or any areas within the employer’s domain. Some states have variations on employee rights regarding workspace searches. Both employees and employers should be aware of the laws governing workplace searches in their state. Additionally, employees should check the terms of their employment contract to see if workplace searches are mentioned.

Can employers search employee cars?

If the car belongs to the company, then the employer is probably within their rights to search it. If it is the employee’s personal car, then the employer is not allowed to search it. Even if the employer suspects there are dangerous or illegal substances in the car, he or she does not have the right to initiate a search. In that case, all the employer could do is call the police and let them determine the next step to take.

Employers who decide to monitor their employees’ email, Internet use, office activities and workspace content can avoid any questions of impropriety or worse by drafting a comprehensive written electronics communications and office monitoring policy. The policy itself should contain language that is reasonable, establishes clear limits on employee use of the company’s computer and Internet systems, and reinforces the employee’s role in furthering the company’s business goals. Each employee should be required to read and sign off on the policy, and be given a copy of the policy for their own files.

In a few more years, most employees will probably expect routine Internet, email and voice mail monitoring to be a given in most business environments. It is in these early years of revolutionary technological change that issues like these are still being ironed out. The best thing for the employer to do is to maintain full disclosure with employees regarding all monitoring policies, and put the rules in writing for all to read and sign off on.