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Privacy invasions victimize employees.

American workers have almost no legal protection from employers who want to poke or prod into their personal lives, maintains L. Camille Hebert, associate professor of law, Ohio State University, and author of Employee Privacy Law. "It's a discouraging situation. Workers are facing increasingly invasive tests and measures that they have to submit to in order to get or keep a job. The laws and court decisions almost uniformly favor employers."

She points out that employers have wide latitude to delve into employees' lives. They have few restrictions on conducting drug, honesty, psychological, or genetic tests of workers. In many instances, they can search the desks, offices, lockers, purses, pockets, and homes of employees for stolen property. Employers generally can fire or refuse to hire individuals on the basis of actual or rumored sexual practices or desires.

There are a patchwork of state laws" that cover aspects of employee privacy, but most don't offer much protection for workers, Hebert indicates. The few protections employees have are the result of concerns other than privacy. For example, employers are restricted in conducting AIDS tests because the results can be used to discriminate against people with a disability. Moreover, Congress passed a law restricting the use of lie detector tests because it was concerned about their accuracy, not because it wanted to protect employee privacy.

Some courts and scholars have argued that privacy should not be a concern because employees can find another job if they believe an employer is violating their rights. However, Hebert points out, that argument is unfair because employees and employers don't have equal power. A worker needs his or her employer much more than the employer needs any individual worker.

The one encouraging sign on the privacy front is that some states have instituted laws making it illegal for employers officially to ask about an employee's off-duty activities or make decisions based on that information. Many of these laws were made to prevent companies from refusing jobs to smokers.

While this is a first step, Hebert believes there need to be Federal laws that severely restrict the right of employers to intrude on employee privacy. "But I don't think it's going to happen anytime soon."
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Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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