Privacy in the Workplace

March 21, 1986

Report Outline
More Drug and Lie Tests
Evolving Privacy Concepts
New Monitoring Technology
Special Focus

More Drug and Lie Tests

Increased Job Screening and Monitoring

When it recommended March 3 that tens of millions of working Americans be tested for evidence of drug abuse, the President's Commission on Organized Crime added fuel to a controversy that is surfacing in workplaces across the country. The commission's call for “suitable” and “appropriate” tests on employees of the federal government and its contractors—as well as workers in the private sector and state and local governments—marked the most dramatic step yet in the growing movement to combat illegal drugs by threatening users with the possibility of losing their jobs. “The war against drugs will not be won until people stop using them,” the commission said.

Faced with a barrage of criticism from Congress and civil libertarians, members of the commission and the Reagan administration seemed to back away from some of the report's drug-testing suggestions. But the debate generated by the proposal focused attention on a broad trend that goes well beyond just drug testing—management's use of technology to monitor what, employees do, both on and off the job. Spurred by evidence that their workers are increasingly inclined to steal or take drugs on the job, many employers are peering into intimate aspects of people's lives, in the hope of either changing their behavior or excluding them from their jobs. Stories about drug-testing among federal workers and professional athletes, and the government's use of lie detectors in spy investigations, are just the highly publicized portion of a widespread movement.

As time goes on, the employee who shows up for work on Monday morning may be ever more accountable for what he or she did on Saturday night. That possibility raises fundamental questions about the nature of the employer-employee relationship, as management, unions and lawmakers struggle over where to draw the line between work and personal life. It also brings into sharp focus some basic questions about the constitutional “right to privacy” proclaimed by the Supreme Court and strengthened by state and federal laws in recent decades. Although they are protected as citizens against unlawful intrusions by their government, workers in the private sector have no guaranteed privacy rights in relation to their employers. Moreover, the surge of new testing methods is just part of a flood of new equipment—from computers and video cameras to electronic sensors and sophisticated telephone monitors—that is making existing privacy laws out of date. Technology has progressed much faster than the law.

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BROWSE RELATED TOPICS:
Drug Abuse
Labor Standards and Practices
Privacy