Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Your Rights While Big Brother Is Watching; Ordering Your Fitted Kitchen Online or Sending Frank Emails Are Fine - Unless You're at Work. Milly Jenkins Takes a Look at How to Strike a Balance between Employee Privacy and a Need for Monitoring

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Your Rights While Big Brother Is Watching; Ordering Your Fitted Kitchen Online or Sending Frank Emails Are Fine - Unless You're at Work. Milly Jenkins Takes a Look at How to Strike a Balance between Employee Privacy and a Need for Monitoring

Article excerpt

Byline: MILLY JENKINS

THE law on privacy in the workplace is far from clear. Last year the Government introduced the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act which allows employers to monitor employees' calls, email and internet use, as long as they have consent.

However, a few months later the Department of Trade and Industry issued separate guidelines allowing employers to monitor staff without consent.

The new Human Rights Act, which guarantees everyone "the right to respect for their private and family life, their home and their correspondence", could be in direct conflict with both these sets of rules, in addition to the Data Protection Act 1998 which regulates the collection of personal information.

The Office of the Information Commissioner is working on a code of practice for privacy at work, due out later this year. Until then, and until these laws have been tested in court, the situation is roughly this: _ Employers can monitor employees' phone calls, email, faxes, post and internet use. They can also watch staff on closed-circuit television CCTV). But monitoring must be at a reasonable level and relevant to the employer's business. Employers should make reasonable efforts to inform workers that they are being monitored and, although it is not law, are strongly advised to write codes of conduct explaining their policy. Some employers include this in contracts. If a company monitors staff without telling them, it is likely to be in breach of the law.

_ There is no specific law regulating CCTV at work. But there is a voluntary code of practice which says employers should put cameras only in relevant places and put up signs to warn staff they are there. They should not record conversations between employees and should not keep tapes for more than 28 days.

For further information _ If you think you are being monitored at work in an unreasonable manner, speak to a Citizens Advice Bureau. You can find your nearest branch in the phone book or visit nacab.org.uk. You can try the TUC's Know Your Rights helpline on 0870 600 4882 and you can complain to the Information Commissioner on 01625 545740 or

email: mail@dataprotection.gov.uk.

_ For employment law, visit employment-solicitors.co.uk. The website offers advice and contacts for employment lawyers.

_ For workplace law, visit workplacelaw.net to find legal information for employers.

_ Cyber-Rights and Cyber-Liberties (cyber-rights.org) is a pressure group with up-to-date information.

The big debate What employees say ...

_ Staff have a right to privacy at work and that privacy is vital to our sense of wellbeing.

_ Dismissal for internet and email "abuse" is being used as an excuse for getting rid of unwanted, difficult or even pregnant staff.

_ Given the long hours people work, it is not unreasonable to make a few personal calls, email a friend or use the internet during lunch. Companies that excessively monitor staff risk damaging morale.

What employers say ...

_ Increased use of email and the internet leaves companies more vulnerable to libel, race- and sex

sexdiscrimination cases, in addition to network problems caused by viruses and reduced bandwidth. For example, a female employee recently won a sexdiscrimination case after colleagues downloaded pornography and discussed it in the office. The tribunal said the company should have had systems to prevent this happening. In the US, oil giant Chevron had to pay four female employees $2.2 million after they received an email entitled Why Beer is Better than Women. As for libel, Norwich Union had to pay [pound]450,000 in damages to a rival, Western Provident Association, after its staff spread rumours about the firm on its intranet.

_ Staff are spending too much time online and it is eating into profits.

One survey found the first series of Big Brother cost businesses [pound]1. …

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