THE BOUNDARIES OF PRIVACY IN THE WORKPLACE

THE BOUNDARIES OF PRIVACY IN THE WORKPLACE

The Constitution of South Africa, 1996, enshrines the right to privacy for every individual. The right has been regarded as an extension of every person’s right to dignity and should also be respected in the workplace. However, like every other right in the Bill of Rights, it is subject to justifiable limitations. This article briefly explores the boundaries of the right to privacy in the workplace, in regard to certain specific areas that are most relevant.

Personal information provided to the employer

Employers may, through the normal working relationship, obtain personal information on their employees including, for example, salary and banking information, performance reviews or information on physical or mental health. The use of all such ‘personal information’ will also be subject to the Protection of Personal Information Act 4 of 2013 (“POPI“) (once effective) and must be appropriately dealt with by the employer. The employee may therefore expect such personal information to be protected within the bounds of POPI (and the Constitution).

Electronic communications and system use

The use of workplace email domains and other information systems resources provided by the employer are central to the day to day activities of many employees. The question arises as to the extent to which the use of such systems may be intercepted or monitored by the employer.

In terms of the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act 70 of 2002 (“RICA“) – which also applies to the use of workplace email / communications systems – any electronic communication, which includes email, may only be intercepted:

  • by anyone who is a party to the communication;
  • by a third party where they have the prior written consent of at least one of the parties to the communication, or
  • by an employer, where the communication relates to, or occurs in the course of the carrying on of such employer’s business

Therefore, your employer may monitor / intercept your electronic communications, without infringing your right to privacy, where you have provided your written consent for this (for example, in your employment contract or by written agreement to your company’s relevant policy document). In other circumstances, the employer will need a justifiable business reason to intercept the emails / communications – this will require a consideration of the circumstances in any particular case.

The extent to which an employer may intercept communications on a personal device used by the employee, where such communication may affect the business, is not settled.

The use of security cameras / CCTV in the workplace

A number of businesses employ the use of security cameras to ensure the protection of their property or even to, for example, encourage good employee work ethic.

Where such cameras are installed in a ‘public’ work area – an area where it may be expected that your actions could be viewed by others – this is acceptable, however, an employer may not install security cameras in a place where total privacy is expected (for example, a bathroom) without consent.

In any event, and having regard to the trust element that is integral to an employer / employee relationship, employers should notify employees of any security cameras that have / will be installed and the purpose or intended use of the footage retrieved from such cameras.

Conclusion

Given the importance of the right to privacy and the sometimes unclear limitations that can be placed on this right in the workplace, such limitations are best regulated by a formal workplace policy so that all parties are aware of and agree to all reasonable limitations.

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