HOW much privacy do American workers have from their employers when they are at work? When they are at home after hours? And to what extent is it proper for employers to monitor them? These questions are being discussed in Washington now, with the release of a report by the American Civil Liberties Union on privacy in the workplace. The ACLU concludes that civil liberties are ``virtually nonexistent in the American workplace'' - and calls the situation ``a national scandal.''
This year the ACLU expects to propose to Congress a bill to increase workplace privacy.
Opinions vary on the ACLU position. Civil liberties ``do exist'' in the workplace, argues Sidney Harman, chief executive officer of Harman International Industries. ``The US is one of the most progressive of all industrialized nations'' in civil liberties in the workplace, he holds.
Privacy experts say that modern technology gives employers enormous possibilities for monitoring their employees - and express concern about the way some tools now may be used. But many add that employers have legitimate reasons to keep track of employee performance and, some say, behavior.
Employees can be monitored at work and often at home by computers, telephone, video cameras, access codes, pagers, beepers, and drug tests, says privacy specialist Gary Marx, a professor of sociology of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ``It's really sort of overwhelming if you look at the totality of devices that are available,'' he adds.
In the telephone and travel industries ``it's standard operating procedure to listen from time to time to employees' calls at work and not tell them, and that's legal,'' says Lewis Maltby, coordinator of the ACLU's task force on civil liberties in the workplace. Most employers may use few, if any, of these available tools. ``The issue is really how they're used,'' says Professor Marx. They can be employed ``as a kind of electronic whip,'' or, instead, to inform people about their performance and the ways in which it should be improved.
``Due-process protections'' should be provided employees, Marx says; some firms do, but others do not.
``I think there are two sides to this,'' says social scientist Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute. ``Concerns about privacy in the workplace are legitimate,'' he adds. But in many cases employers ``have a legitimate reason'' to keep tabs on employees, not only at work to monitor their performance in computer key strokes or making widgets, but also after hours, because their post-work behavior can affect their work quality.
An extreme example, says Mr. Besharov: ``None of us wants our airline pilots to even have a drink for 24 hours before they fly. That's the rule.''
Another example: Some firms refuse to hire employees who smoke. ``We know that smokers cost health plans much more than nonsmokers,'' Besharov says, causing employers and nonsmoking employees to pay higher health insurance premiums.
``At stake here is drawing the proper line between the zone of behavior that is entirely up to the individual to regulate,'' says ACLU executive director Ira Glasser, ``and the zone that is partly up to the company to regulate.''