21 Nov 2012

Employee privacy – a balancing act


Companies are always seeking ways to improve productivity.  The most innovative and successful methods can create some positive buzz around a company.

Other approaches can sometimes be ill-advised, premature or ineffective, and this can make waves within an organization.

Last month, a law firm in Toronto was the subject of some media interest over its highly controversial plan to use fingerprint-scanning technology to monitor the comings and goings of its administrative staff. The plan was meant to ensure that staff were not “abusing the system” with lengthy lunch breaks and short work days. Media reports and blog posts zeroed in on the privacy implications of such a plan.

Our Office wouldn’t have oversight over this specific employment matter – we only have oversight into matters of employee privacy in federal works, undertakings, or businesses (lovingly referred to as “FWUBs”). Otherwise, employee privacy is largely a provincial matter, with several provinces having passed privacy legislation that applies to personal information of private sector employees. It’s unfortunate that there is little redress for employees in those provinces that do not have legislation in place, this being one such case in point.

An employer’s need for information should be balanced with an employee’s right to privacy. While employers may be focused on increasing productivity, they should seek to ensure that they weigh the benefits of any potentially privacy-invasive plans against the costs — and not just economic  costs.  Cost considerations should include potential impact on staff morale, loss of trust and loss of human dignity.

Law firms, in particular, could set a model example in how they handle personal information when managing their law practice. In Girao v. Zarek Taylor Grossman Hanrahan LLP, Hon. Justice Richard Mosley wrote,

““Law firms providing advice to clients who deal with the personal information of their customers must be knowledgeable about privacy law and the risks of disclosure. Lawyers also have a public duty to protect the integrity of the legal process. The failure of lawyers to take measures to protect personal information in their possession may justify a higher award than that which would be imposed on others who are less informed about such matter.”

While the Federal Court was referring to the personal information of clients rather than employees in those circumstances, it’s still a significant message about the high standards of conduct judges expect lawyers to live up to.

We hope law firms will take the opportunity to consult our privacy guidance for lawyers. And we hope organizations will take advantage of the other resources we have on dealing with workplace privacy issues, including our fact sheet for human resources professionals.

 


2 Responses

Office of the Privacy Commissioner » Blog Archive » Employee privacy – a balancing act | SectorPrivate's Blog Says:

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Hasina Akther Says:

It is a nice post and it is helpful for everybody.

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