Workplace Privacy in Oregon

There’s just one place where you’re safe from monitoring

By Susan G. Hauser | Last updated on January 20, 2023

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The right to privacy is a venerable and hallowed concept. But if people think it extends to workplace communications performed on company-owned devices, “they’ve got their heads buried in the sand,” says Chrys A. Martin, an employment and labor lawyer with Davis Wright Tremaine in Portland, Oregon. “Some legal advice, every employee knows now that somebody can listen to their voice mail or tap into their email or sites they’ve been accessing,” she says. That is, every employee who’s read their employee handbook and company policies.

Why God Created iPads

“Most employers’ policies say some key things,” says Paula A. Barran, founding partner of Barran Liebman, a labor and employment law firm in Portland. “‘This is ours, not yours; this isn’t private to you; if we want to, we can look at it; and if we want to, we can use anything that’s on it.’” Once information is put on the company’s electronic systems, she adds, “employees no longer have any privacy right to it, and the company is entitled to review it, print it, download it and use it.” Some of the monitoring can be chalked up to self-preservation. Consider that a company’s entire computer network could be brought down by a virus thanks to one employee’s careless web surfing. Another kind of corporate damage could come from indiscreet revelations of trade secrets and confidential information. Martin says most protections and monitoring of employee email and voice mail is by Oregon employers striving to keep secrets and nondisclosure within the walls of their research and development departments. Barran’s advice to employees: “If you want personal privacy, that’s why God created iPads.”

Don’t Text

But even when equipped with an iPad or a personal phone, employees can’t completely dodge scrutiny. Sure, using personal devices prohibits an employee’s boss from examining messages produced on them; but doing it on company time might land workers in hot water. “If it’s your own phone, and there is no stated written policy that they’ll access it, looking at that phone and examining the text is probably an invasion of privacy without the employee’s consent,” says Scott N. Hunt, a partner at employment firm Busse & Hunt in Portland. “But if you’re doing it at work and not for employment purposes, they don’t have to look at the text to get rid of you. They could just tell you, ‘Well, you shouldn’t be texting on company time. You’re out of here.’” With rapidly developing technology, it’s understandable that employee rights and privacy law haven’t really caught up with employment practice rules. “I’ve been doing appropriate workplace conduct training sessions for close to 20 years,” says Courtney Angeli, a Portland-based employment lawyer with Buchanan Angeli Altschul & Sullivan. “Even seven years ago, there was very little talk of legal issues and things like social media, and the concerns about non-workplace conduct mostly involved holiday parties. Now we spend an enormous amount of time talking about the impact [of social media].”

Are Personal Passwords Safe?

Thanks to a new law, employers can no longer demand personal social media passwords from employees, job applicants and prospective employees, thanks to an Oregon law that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2014. (To date, more than 20 states have passed or are considering such a law.) Martin notes that there is really just one area in the workplace where an employee can truly relax and not expect to be monitored: the restroom. “That’s where you’d have an expectation of privacy,” she says. “But nowhere else on the employer’s premises.” For more information about this area, see our labor law overview.

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