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Helping You Navigate Workplace Issues in California

As a California Employee, Do I Have Rights to Privacy in the Workplace?


Under California’s constitution, every resident of the state has the right to privacy. To support this right, a number of state laws are designed to protect an employee or job applicant’s privacy in the workplace. Ultimately, it is the employer’s obligation to follow these laws and have the necessary policies in place to ensure that employee privacy is a priority.

Here is a brief overview of just some of the privacy protections California employees enjoy in the workplace:

  1. Limits on Background Checks

Some employers with to conduct background checks on potential new hires. Federal law already imposes some restrictions in this area. For instance, if an employer uses a third-party consumer reporting agency to conduct a background check, the applicant must be informed and give written consent. And California’s “ban-the-box” law forbids any inquiries about an applicant’s criminal history unless and until the employer extends a conditional job offer to the applicant. Finally, some California cities, such as Los Angeles, impose additional restrictions on the use of criminal background checks.

  1. Asking Employees for Medical Information

California employers are required to grant medical leave to employees under certain circumstances. But this does not mean the employer has the right to go digging through your medical records. For example, if you take leave under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA), your employer cannot ask you to disclose the “medical facts” of your condition. And even in cases where an employer must be informed of your medical condition, such as when filing for workers’ compensation, the employer has a legal duty to ensure those records are kept secure and confidential.

  1. Workplace Monitoring

Technology makes it easier than ever for employers to conduct nonstop surveillance of employees. But just because employers can record everything doesn’t mean they should. As a general rule, California employers are free to monitor workplace communications, such as company-controlled phones and email accounts. And employers can use video surveillance to monitor its facilities.

But there are limits. It’s one thing for a retail store to have closed-circuit cameras monitoring the sales floor. Placing cameras in bathrooms or employee break rooms, however, is a different story. Employers cannot monitor locations where an employee would have a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” Also note that California has strict laws regarding audio surveillance–generally, you need the employee’s consent to record what they say.

The Importance of Employee Handbooks

Employee privacy is not something a business should handle on an ad hoc or case-to-case basis. Employers need to have written policies–such as an employee handbook–that explains employee privacy rights in detail. Employers must also provide a clear business justification for any policies or practices that might compromise employee privacy, and where applicable the employer needs to obtain express, written consent from the employee or job applicant.

If you have additional questions or concerns about employee privacy rights, you should contact a qualified California employment law attorney today.


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* Cathleen Scott is licensed to practice in Florida only.

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