Privacy in the Workplace

Dealing with privacy in the workplace has become a very controversial issue in Canadian employment. We are now working in the 'information age' with vast amounts of information stored in digital format, making it very quick and easy to call up data. One of the challenges facing the employers is how to handle the employees' personal information in the light of employee privacy. Also closely related to the handling of employees' personal data is the security protecting that information.

In any employment situation there is a certain amount of personal information that an employee is required to provide to the employer. This requirement raises questions regarding etc:

  • What personal information is required?
  • How much information?
  • For what purposes is the information to be used?
  • How is the information to be used?
  • Who will have access to their personal information?
  • Can the information be used against the employee in the future?

Privacy Laws

With continuing technological advances the laws dealing with workplace privacy are still in their infancy but are gradually evolving as the needs and issues involved become clearer, or as situations become challenged through court cases.

Although privacy laws dealing with technological advances are still gradually evolving, there are numerous Canadian laws that provide the legal framework for privacy:

There are both federal and provincial laws dealing with privacy.

At the federal level there are two acts protecting privacy the:

  • federal Privacy Act of 1982, which regulates how government agencies and government employers collect, use and disclose an individual's personal information.
  • Personal Information and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) of 1982 which adopted the CSA International Privacy Code dealing with the processing of personal information in the course of commercial activity.

Both the Privacy Act and PIPEDA fall under the control of the independent Privacy Commissioner of Canada, who has the power to investigate, mediate, and make recommendations. However, the Commissioner cannot issue orders or impose penalties.

At the provincial and territorial levels there are legislation regulating how government agencies may collect, use and disclose personal information.

In the private sector at the provincial and territorial levels the Personal Information and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) applies to all organizations engaged in business activities, such as the retail sector, publishing companies, service industries, manufacturers and other provincially regulated businesses. There are exemptions for those provinces that have substantially similar legislation to PIPEDA i.e. British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec.

Challenge Areas in Privacy in the Workplace

One of the grey areas where privacy in the workplace becomes an issue of concern is in the use of technology where workers may be monitored in their use of email or the Internet. Here there have been attempts to address the issue of employee use of company property for personal email and Internet use, through directives on computer and internet "etiquette".

There are a number of other areas in the workplace where privacy issues can easily give rise to problems. These would include the following areas:

  • Hiring Practices - there is strict legislation surrounding information gathering regarding potential employees, doing background checks, and using information obtained from online social network sites.
  • Company property and intellectual information - Addresses the issue of when is it "company property" and when is it "personal property"?
  • Employment/Employee Records
  • Employee's Medical Information
  • Workplace employee privacy versus employer's right to divulge information
  • Searching Employees
  • Monitoring and Surveillance in the workplace
  • Drug Testing in Employment
  • Disclosing Employee Information to Third Parties
  • Security and Access to Employees' Personal Information

The about areas can create very complex privacy problems which are often not easily resolved. There is no "one-size-fits-all" solution to any one area. Each situation or case is viewed on its individual merits. As a result privacy in the workplace issues are constantly being disputed.