Surveillance in the Workplace

Q.  Can employers prevent employees from recording conversations in the workplace.

A.  Sometimes.

As technology continues to advance, so does the likelihood that everything you say and do is being recorded, even in the workplace. With most employees having access to smartphones and other similar devices, there has been an increase in the number of employees engaging in surreptitious surveillance as a means of trying to document alleged wrongdoing and to assert and prove legal claims.  These recordings are being used more frequently in discrimination litigation.  Employees who secretly record workplace conversations often regret it, because the recordings usually depict an employer attempting to be reasonable, and it makes the employee look sneaky and manipulative. However, employers often want to prevent these recordings from happening in the first place. Whether an employer can prevent employees from recording conversations in the workplace depends on federal and state wiretapping laws, and the interests the employer is attempting to protect in relation to employee rights.

Federal law permits the recording of conversations as long as one of the parties to the conversation consents. This means that, so long as the person doing the actual recording consents to the recording, such a recording is permissible.  However, whether more than one-party consent is required varies from state to state.  While most states only require one-party consent, 12 states, including Pennsylvania, require two-party consent.

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is a two-party consent state, meaning that it is illegal to intercept or record a conversation unless all parties to the conversation consent. Under Pennsylvania law, it is a felony to record a private conversation without obtaining the appropriate consent.  Thus, if an employee secretly records a private workplace conversation with his or her coworkers or employer, the employee may be subject to a civil lawsuit and criminal charges.

New Jersey

By contrast, in New Jersey, only one-party consent is required to record an in-person or telephone conversation. Thus, it is legal to record a workplace conversation as long as you are a party to the conversation.  However, if an employee records a conversation that he or she is not a part of (for example, if the conversation occurs between a coworker and a supervisor), the employee must obtain consent from at least one of the parties to avoid civil and/or criminal penalties.

“No-Recording” Policies

Employers who wish to prevent their employees from recording workplace conversations should distribute a “no-recording” policy. However, such policies must be drafted carefully to avoid running afoul of the National Labor Relations Act.  For example, no-recording policies that completely ban employees from recording any workplace activities are likely to be considered unlawful.  Employees, even in an non-union environment, are permitted (at least in one-party states) to record conversations or events regarding the terms and conditions of their employment. Such conduct could be considered to be lawful “concerted activity.”

On the other hand, employers are permitted to place properly-tailored limits on an employee’s ability to record workplace activities without violating Section 7 rights. Including a disclaimer in the policy that informs employees that the policy is not intended to interfere with their Section 7 rights is an effective way to reiterate the types of recordings that the employer is not barring.  Employers also should make sure that they are able to identify and articulate legitimate business reasons for prohibiting employees from recording during certain times and in certain places, such as protecting confidential or proprietary information.  Also, if an employer’s state law prohibits nonconsensual surreptitious recordings, it is recommended that the employer refer to the state law in their recording policy.

In addition, employers should be careful to follow these best practices:

  • When meeting with employees, employers should refrain from saying anything that they would not want recorded and make sure to comply with company policies and procedures.
  • Employers should always conduct themselves in a professional and fair manner, as if they were being recorded.
  • In situations where employers are aware that they are being recorded, they should make it clear whether they object or consent to the recording,
  • Consistently enforce the no-recording policy among both employees, supervisors and visitors.
  • Employers should not record discussions with their employers; however if an employer chooses to record a workplace conversation, he or she should inform all parties in advance, even in a single consent state.
  • If an employer feels that he or she is being recorded, the employer should ask the employee(s). Employers do not have to participate in a conversation that is being recorded and can refuse to have a discussion with anyone who insists on recording.
  • Before terminating, disciplining or pursuing criminal or civil charges against an employee for recording in the workplace, seek the advice of counsel.

Renee C. Manson

 

 

 

Regulating Speech at Work

Q: Can a private employer limit its employees’ speech and political activity in the workplace?

A: Yes, but not speech that is considered part of a “concerted activity.”

Last year, former San Francisco 49ers player Colin Kaepernick, kneeled during the national anthem to bring attention to racial injustice. On Saturday September 23, 2017, in a series of tweets, President Trump demonstrated his displeasure with NFL players who do not stand during the national anthem and called for their termination.  In response to President Trump’s comments, NFL players across the country have been “taking a knee,” locking arms or staying in the locker room during the national anthem.  These demonstrations have generated a lot of discussion about whether a private employer can limit an employee’s speech and political activity in the workplace.

Although the right to freedom of speech is fundamental, it is not absolute. The First Amendment prohibits the government from interfering with an individual’s freedom of speech and religion; however it does not protect private-sector employees.  There is a common misconception that freedom of speech applies to anything and everything an individual has to say, but the First Amendment protections only apply in cases of government interference.

Private-sector employees are typically employed at-will, meaning that their employers can fire them at any time for any reason, with or without cause. There are many exceptions to the employment at-will doctrine, but the First Amendment is not one of them.  As a result, as a general matter, a private sector employer may discipline or even terminate an at-will employee for statements made both inside and outside of the workplace, including statements made on social media posts, blog posts, political opinions, t-shirts, and bumper stickers.  But the employer’s right has limits.  Under federal labor laws, an employer cannot discipline or fire an employee for speech that involves “concerted activities,” such as discussing the terms and conditions of employment, wearing a union shirt, discussing wages, and/or forming a union.

Even though the First Amendment does not apply to private workplaces, employers should be careful when regulating speech. Although an employer may have a right to regulate employee speech on political or social issues, doing so may have a detrimental effect on the workplace.  And, there are times when employers have a duty to regulate employee speech.  For example, employers have a responsibility to maintain a work environment that does not violate laws prohibiting discrimination and harassment, or create a hostile environment.  Employers often have to investigate and act in response to speech in the workplace, and even outside the workplace, that creates or contributes to a hostile work environment from the standpoint of race, sex and other protected characteristics.

Employers should consult a labor and employment attorney if they have any questions about what speech is appropriate to regulate, and for assistance in establishing policies and procedures that govern speech in the workplace.

Renee Manson