Unlike other states, California has a special protection of privacy written into its constitution, which says citizens have certain inalienable rights, including pursuing and obtaining safety, happiness, and privacy.” Different statutes also provide specific privacy protections for California employees. For instance, employers cannot demote, suspend, or terminate employees for participating in conduct that is not illegal during off-duty hours (given that the behavior occurs away from the place of work). Employees have the right to sue employers for violating reasonable expectations of privacy, as measured by objective and widely accepted social norms. This article describes a few of the ways in which employers are not allowed to invade the privacy of their employees. If you find that your legal rights in the workplace are being violated, it is a good idea to consult with an employment lawyer, as the law can be complex and difficult to navigate for people who are not experts.
1. Drug testing in some cases
Job applicants can be drug tested once they have received conditional offers, as long as they are all drug tested and it is not an issue of discrimination. For instance, an employer who only obliges African American applicants to take drug tests as a condition of employment would be in blatant violation of federal and state discrimination laws. For most jobs, random drug testing of current employees is typically considered unreasonable. Exceptions, of course, do exist and include employees who work in safety or security-sensitive roles. Employers who have reasonable suspicions about illicit drug use can do a drug test; it is random ones that are unannounced and not previously consented to that are most problematic. Employers should have written policies about drug testing, which can be important to set employee expectations (recall that it is illegal for employers to violate their employees’ reasonable expectations of privacy).
2. The imposition of medical exams or questions about medical information
Employers are not allowed to discriminate based on a medical condition or disability status. To this end, they generally cannot oblige employees to disclose the medications they are taking or to provide information about the internal state of their body. Generally speaking, employers cannot ask job applicants to reveal confidential medical information or to submit to medical examinations. However, once a job offer is made, an employer can make it conditional upon you passing a job-related medical examination (e.g. a fitness test for a firefighter that assesses specifically job-related duties). Of course, that means all entering employees in that kind of position must be required to do the same. One person cannot be singled out due to the employer’s belief that they have a disability, as that would be illegal discrimination. Additionally, even if a disability is revealed during such a medical exam, if the individual can perform the essential functions of the job with a reasonable accommodation (one that does not pose an undue hardship on the employer) then the employer cannot refuse to hire them.
Moreover, medical records that an employer might have about employees for health insurance claims, workers’ compensation claims, or disability or medical leaves must be kept confidential. Your boss cannot go around telling all your coworkers that you have diabetes, for instance, if you only told your boss because you needed to take leave because of it and do not want that information shared with others. It is best for employers to keep medical documents separate from personnel files and kept in a secure location that only designated staff members can access.
3. Invasions of privacy related to social media
With the pervasiveness of social media in today’s world, it is likely no surprise that privacy concerns can be a huge issue for people who use it. Most employees do not want their bosses snooping on their social media accounts. Where else would they complain about their micromanaging and silly habits? To help address this issue, California enacted Labor Code Section 980 in 2013. Generally, it limits employers from accessing employee social media. The law bars employers from asking or demanding that an employee or job applicant do a few different things. For example, your boss cannot request or order that you tell them your username or password so they can access your personal social media. Your boss also cannot require you to access your social media accounts in their presence (they don’t need to see that you complained about them twice last week!). Employers also cannot retaliate against an employee for refusing access to personal social media. However, employees who do not want their employers looking at their information online should ensure that their privacy settings hide their information from people who they have not explicitly granted access to (e.g. Facebook friends).
A related issue that comes up in the context of discrimination is employers using social media and having access to information that they are not legally permitted to use in the hiring process, like age/race/. Wittingly or unwittingly, people who make hiring decisions may discriminate against people based on membership in protected categories if they look up the social media profiles of applicants. Even if only your profile picture is available to the public, that can still tell employers your approximate age, gender, and race, which could bias their decisions. To avoid this problem, employers should employ a hiring system that erases the problem. For instance, a third party could be asked to look up the social media profiles of applicants and scrub all the details about things employers are not allowed to ask of applicants and then give only the relevant details to the person or people making hiring decisions.
Do any of these situations sound familiar to you? If so, you may be a victim of a workplace privacy violation. If you think your reasonable expectations of privacy in the workplace have been violated or you have been wronged at work in some other way (e.g. discriminated against, ually harassed, or retaliated against for protected activity), you may want to contact an employment attorney to see what you might be able to do about your situation.