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Privacy Issues at Work

By: Chris Hogan MSc - Updated: 7 Nov 2012 | comments*Discuss
Workers' Rights Data Protection Act Dpa

A worker’s right to privacy is not covered by any specific law or regulation in the United Kingdom, but there are many that touch on it, such as the Data Protection Act (DPA) and the Human Rights Act. But what does this mean in practice, is the worker protected, and can employers work within the law?

Human Rights Act and its Children

The Human Rights Act 1998 set guidelines under which other UK legislation has been framed that impact on privacy. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and the Telecommunications (Lawful Business Practice) (Interception of Communications) Regulations 2000, coupled with the DPA, have all specified limits to the monitoring and screening of workers. The idea was to clarify where a company's need to spy on people outweighed the rights of the individual.

The law is often a long way behind technological development, however, and for good reason, as the problems caused by hastily assembled legislation can reverberate forever. But this means that there is no legal framework to specifically cover, for example, the monitoring of employees by camera, whether it is to stamp out pilfering or to protect workers vulnerable to attack.

The Pros and Cons of Monitoring

Where employers can justifiably install cameras for the protection of staff, the suspicion among the workers is often that, while that might be the real reason, management and business owners will soon realise that the camera footage can also be used to spy on workers.

However, there are more complex examples. Consider a salesperson who has a lovely new piece of software which holds all customer details and can contain information about all the meetings, phone calls and proposals produced on the way to clinching a sale. Now that is a fantastic and powerful business tool for keeping track of each prospect and presenting results to management, but its not too hard to see that it can also be used to account for all the sales team’s time.

While the culture in the UK is still to measure progress by the amount of time spent on the job rather than the results achieved, then suddenly the tool can being used to brow-beat staff.

Employees Compliance Required

The general rule in the UK is to allow monitoring, but only with the consent of the workers. In truth, this can be obtained quite easily for new starters, by making it a condition of the Employment Contract or staff handbook. But it can be trickier introducing it for existing staff.

Computers and Networks

The Data Protection Act essentially restricts businesses from keeping personal information, such as names and addresses, without registering with the Data Protection Agency. Once that’s done, businesses can hold the information but have to be careful about how and when it’s transferred, inside or outside the business.

Before computers existed this wasn’t particularly a problem, as the information largely stayed where it was. All companies would have a list of employees contact details, for example, for payroll if nothing else, but it largely stayed where it was. But computers and networks now make it easy to transfer this information in the blink of an eye and sell it, either to business competitors (for customer details) or on the black market for identity theft (workers details).

The Telecommunications Regulations of 2000 were introduced to allow businesses to monitor email and other methods of communication using telephones, computers and networks. Many businesses monitor electronic communications not because they fear industrial espionage but to try to stop employees wasting company time.

But a recent survey found that nearly a third of UK companies did not have policies in place to cover inappropriate use of the internet by staff. They also found that only a third of employers asked new staff to sign a policy after reading it, and that blogging, being a recent phenomenon, was not covered at all.

Too Liberal?

Business owners often feel that the privacy laws are tilted too far in favour of the employee in the UK. They consider that having to obtain workers’ consent to monitor them means that potential culprits are being told what is going to be done, so they have more information to help avoid detection. The other side of that coin is that if employees are doing something wrong, and they know that they are going to be monitored, they won’t do it.

There is a school of thought among some employers that there should be no ‘private’ data as far as work is concerned. Then everyone will know that anything they communicate or do will be watched and the employees who don’t like it can reject the contract. That effectively means losing their job though, and to force a contract change on an employee that results in their resignation is likely to result in a claim for unfair dismissal.

What Can You Do?

Either way, if you feel that your privacy rights are not being respected in the workplace, in practice, the options for doing anything about it are limited. The police are unlikely to act on a complaint of this nature and unless you are a member of a Trade Union, the only recourse will be to discuss it with line management. Take advice, either from a union, a lawyer or perhaps the Citizens Advice Bureau, before starting out.

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Can management make you ask a customer to have their card and if you dont ask each customer can they threaten you to penalise or disaplinary you which I class as bullying also we are not allowed water on the shop floor and as we have to work for 3 to 4 hrs before we can go for a break and the toliet we are bullied to sign papers if we dont we get told we will be out of a job if you dont sign cause there are plenty of people out there who want jobs is this right for a well known company to do this with their shop worker there is other things going on as well
spider - 25-Apr-12 @ 11:57 PM
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