Thursday, April 20, 2006

Watching What You Say and What You Do in the Workplace

Few rights are as deeply treasured by American citizens as their freedom of speech. The deceptively simple guarantee of the First Amendment—"Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech ..."—is deeply ingrained into our national psyche. If you want to stand on a street corner and describe loudly and in great detail how your elected officials are a bunch of idiots, then you have the right to do so. And even if you prefer not to spend your lunch hour criticizing the government, you may be one of the millions who enjoys listening to late-night comedians take potshots at the nation's politicians or to the vigorous give-and-take (or demented ravings, depending on your point of view) of talk radio.

You might be surprised to find, then, that freedom of speech doesn't mean the same thing at work that it means on a street corner or on late-night TV. If you would like to stand up in the middle of the company cafeteria and describe loudly and in great detail how the managers and directors of your company are a bunch of idiots, you technically have the right to do so, but no matter how vigorously you wave the Bill of Rights, it won't do much to protect your job prospects.

Thanks to various federal and state laws, you do have some protection if you criticize your boss on the phone or in a private conversation—as a general rule, eavesdropping on private conversations is not permitted. But as we'll see, you have far less protection when you conduct conversations via e-mail, or post comments on Web newsgroups, bulletin boards, or chat rooms.

Even more disturbingly, you may no longer be able to assume that you are free from casual observation while you are at work; a large number of different technologies are being used to track where you go and what you do while you're in the workplace. Infrared technology, for instance, is increasingly used to track employee movements. And as the size and cost of cameras steadily shrink, the frequency of video surveillance by employers is steadily increasing. Only a few states have passed laws regarding surreptitious videotaping, and virtually all of them contain exceptions that allow employers to conduct video surveillance for business-related reasons, a phrase that is usually broadly defined.

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