Protecting your rights as an employee – privacy in the workplace

How secure is your private information?

How would you feel if you discovered a co-worker had surreptitiously accessed your personnel file? Easy access to information has its trade-off. Technological advances and global exposure with all forms of electronic media continues to grow as our privacy shrinks. This trend is sweeping the workplace and the banking industry seems to be one of the front runners in this regard. Not only do employees have access to the financial records of the general public, they also have access to each other's personal information.

Employment Law: Privacy vs. Your Rights as an Employee

One female bank employee became suspicious that a co-worker had accessed her personal records and made a complaint to her employer. The Bank discovered that the co-worker in question had illicitly used her work computer to access the employee’s financial records over 174 times in a four year stretch. The Bank responded by suspending the co-worker for one week without pay and denying her a bonus. This glorified slap on the wrist only served to satisfy the principles of employment law and the interest of the Bank. It did nothing for the employee whose privacy was violated.

Common law: Privacy vs. Your Rights as an Employee

The employee took matters into her own hands and sued her co-worker for damages for the invasion of personal privacy. The co-worker openly admitted her guilt and acknowledged that she was in breach of Bank policy and its ethical standards. The co-worker was fully aware how her actions had violated both her professional responsibilities and the privacy rights of the employee who was suing her. While the co-worker's motivations remained unclear, it was noted that she was in a common-law relationship with the plaintiff employee's ex-husband.

One might think the outcome was blatantly obvious. However, the judge dismissed the case claiming that provincial law offered no free-standing right to privacy at common law. Simply stated, the provincial legislation only dealt with privacy issues regarding government and public institutions. There wasn’t any legislation for privacy invasion between individual people or individuals and private employers.

Human rights and your rights as an employee - redefining privacy for Canadians

Undeterred, the employee appealed the decision with ground-breaking results. The Court addressed the fundamental human right to informational privacy, and stated that it was worthy of lawful protection. A new tort of invasion of privacy was introduced: “intrusion upon seclusion.” This allowed the employee to hold her co-worker personally accountable for invasion of privacy. As the co-worker had intentionally intruded in the employee's private affairs and caused her emotional stress, the previous ruling was overturned. The co-worker was held liable and the employee was awarded $10,000 in damages.

The common laws are transforming, as the courts now recognize that technology and social changes in society have largely invaded our private lives. If you have questions concerning the security of your personal information in the workplace or your rights as an employee, please contact Employment Lawyer, Bob Yeager.

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