Q. When I was at lunch last Friday, my supervisor sat at my computer, pulled up my latest documents and found and read my personal diary.
Okay -- I shouldn't have been writing it on work hours but it was private. When I returned to the office, co-workers sniggered at me. Apparently my supervisor called them over to my work station and read parts of my diary out loud.
Do I have recourse?
A. You made the first error -- you wrote your diary on your work computer during work time. Still, that didn't justify your supervisor's actions. She could have disciplined you for inappropriate conduct. Instead, she invaded your privacy and further humiliated you by inviting your co-workers to hear your personal thoughts.
"Unfortunately," says attorney Charles Adams, "an employee's right of privacy with respect to an employer-owned computer or email system can be summed up by 'you have zero privacy ... get over it.' " Employers can monitor employee use of work computers because they own the computers and pay for the employee's time.
Conversely, some legal experts argue that employees have a right to privacy, citing the landmark K-Mart Corporation v. Trotti. When employee Trotti sued K-Mart for privacy invasion after K-Mart managers searched her purse in a locker, Trotti argued she had a legitimate expectation of privacy because K-Mart let her use her own lock. She won an $8,000 mental anguish verdict and $100,000 in punitive damages.
Do you have a similar privacy right? For example, did your employer allow you to password-protect your computer? If you had no password or left your diary open on a work computer, you lost your rights.
Despite this, you have recourse. Do you want to work for this firm? Sometimes leaving is the best revenge.
Alternatively, escalate the problem. Let your manager know you won't again mess around on work time; however, let her know your supervisor acted nastily. Hopefully, she'll set your supervisor straight and you'll receive a genuine apology.
Meanwhile, your story isn't unique.
When temp agency Link Staffing sent Jonathan Bruns to work for Deepwater Corrosion Services, Bruns asked his supervisor, Pete Offenhauser, if he could charge his cellphone in a wall outlet. Offenhauser plugged Bruns' phone into his laptop and accessed photos of Brun's fiancé.
Offenhauser called everyone in the office to view the nude photos. When Bruns walked back in, the crew laughed and Offenhauser made rude comments such as "it's a good thing she shaved."
Bruns complained to the Human Resources Department, which didn't investigate. The company then fired him, alleging a work slowdown, and Links Staffing told Bruns to "stop harassing Link's customers" and said he'd get "no more assignments."
Bruns and his fiancée filed suit against the company, alleging privacy invasion.
Similarly, in Quon v. Arch Wireless Operating Co. Inc. et al., the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held a California police department violated Sgt. Jeff Quon's state and federal constitutional privacy rights when Quon's lieutenant reviewed Quon's personal text messages.
In other words, you can sue if you don't get recourse within your organization. Finally, you can keep what's personal private and stop working on your diary at work.
Dr. Lynne Curry is a management/employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc. Send your questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Lynne on Twitter @lynnecurry10.