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Take illegal workplace surveillance seriously

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MARCH 22, 2011 7:20 AM

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Those concerned about privacy invasions shouldn’t forget the workplace.

The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics said in a March 17 statement that two employees were facing disciplinary action for privacy violation. AFSCME Local 12 President John Stellmach filed a formal complaint earlier last week on behalf of several Urology Department employees who alleged that their supervisor had been using a baby monitor to listen to their conversations. The incident remains under investigation by the UI police.

Any case of illegitimate workplace surveillance underlines the importance of taking employees’ privacy violations seriously. While it’s too early to judge the motivations of the people involved, the case is a vital reminder that certain forms of surveillance are downright illegal — and we mustn’t give employers a free pass, regardless of the relevance to their business.

Under Iowa law, auditory surveillance and recording are only legal if the monitored party gives consent (in a conversation, only one party must acquiesce). “It’s a criminal issue,” Stellmach told the *DI* Editorial Board on Monday. “We may have a grievance depending on how the investigation is conducted, but right now, it seems that public-safety officials are doing their due diligence.”

Although he is pleased with the actions taken so far, he believes that the administration did not deal appropriately with the event when it occurred.

The treatment of this incident as a serious matter is warranted. While the monitor was not believed to have picked up conversations before being discontinued, its use is still disturbing. A baby monitor is hardly a sophisticated surveillance system, but it differs from more expensive setups by degree, not necessarily by ethical standing. While it is inappropriate to speculate about the motives behind the alleged spying — and it could be a complicated misunderstanding — employers need to ensure that their employees understand the boundaries of appropriate supervising.

According to a 1992 study by researchers from Texas, Arkansas, and Georgia, protection of privacy was not seen as the norm in many workplaces until late in the 20th century, when employees began to question traditional practices of overwhelming supervision. Invasions of privacy, according to the same study, often prove counterproductive: subordinates rebel or avoid the kind of dialogue that fosters a healthy workplace.

Employers’ interest in controlling their workplace must always be mediated with a strong support of individual liberties and employee privacy, even when their surveillance methods are legal. Illegal surveillance to hear employee chitchat, the ostensible rationale for the use of a baby monitor at the UIHC, is simply inappropriate; upper-level UIHC administrators are right in taking firm disciplinary action.

Workers cannot work in an environment in which they are concerned they may be recorded without their consent. With their knowledge and consent is, of course, another matter: Employers are free to have a policy of surveillance that falls within legal limits. But workers must be able to protest or avoid the invasion of their privacy. (Of course, in a tense economy with high unemployment and low union membership, the latter can be difficult to negotiate.)

It can also be difficult to find out when violations are occurring, because employees fear reprisal from their superiors if they report them. Stellmach said AFSCME will closely watch to ensure that the employees who came forward about the issue are not punished. This is, of course, partly what unions (even the currently vilified public-sector ones) exist to accomplish: not just raises in wages or increased benefits but protections of workers’ rights and negotiations about workplace standards.

The swift action by UIHC administrators is a good sign; incidents of employers invading employee privacy should be taken as seriously as invasions of privacy by unrelated parties. If a workplace insists on monitoring its workers, the workers have a right to know that this type of supervision is occurring before it begins — and to offer or deny consent.

Hopefully, this case will encourage supervisors to act appropriately in the future.


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