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How can big brother preserve privacy?

Snooping on staff through surveillance may seem straight out of 1984, but is fast becoming common in New Zealand workplaces.


Monitoring workplace technology is useful in protecting business reputation, confidential information, and company property.


No one wants to find disparaging comments online.  Nor find that staff have "pulled a sickie" on social media.


Despite having good reasons for monitoring technology, many employers walk a fine line between keeping an eye on employees and breaching staff privacy.


The Privacy Act 1993 sets out information privacy principles which govern the collection, use, storage and disclosure of personal information relating to individuals, including employees.


You should have workplace policies to inform staff that company technology is monitored, so there are no surprises.


Let's take a look at how employers should monitor staff through technology, while meeting privacy obligations.


Secret Recordings


Can you covertly record conversations with staff?


Secret recordings have been a hot topic in recent years. Covertly recorded conversations may be illegal if the person recording is not party to that conversation.


The recent political debacle in Southland is a prime example of what can go wrong with recording workplace conversations.


Former Clutha-Southland MP Todd Barclay faced police investigation after he recorded a critical staff member's private conversation.


Former Prime Minister Bill English claimed Barclay had just "left his dictaphone on" in the office, and police closed the case after two investigations due to a lack of evidence.


While recording conversations with staff may be allowed if you are party to that conversation, it's best to ask for consent first, than forgiveness later.


Otherwise, your employee could claim that you have breached your employer obligations to act in good faith, or your recording was unfair and intrusive.




Recording with CCTV


Are you at risk of shoplifters and light-fingered employees?  Have you experienced huge financial losses as a result?


Closed-circuit television (CCTV) is a common tool for reducing shrinkage, and is widely deployed for deterring and detecting crime.


While useful for investigating misconduct, it can be overly intrusive and is easily misused, putting you at risk of breaching privacy and employment laws.


Privacy concerns led to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner releasing CCTV guidelines, which can be found on its website:


To rely on your CCTV technology, you should manage your system with an effective CCTV policy and plan.


If you wish to follow the Privacy Commissioner's CCTV guidelines, you should:

  • Identify a need for CCTV, consult with anyone who may be affected, and develop a plan to set up the CCTV system;
  • Develop policies in relation to the CCTV system;
  • Choose the right equipment to meet your purpose;
  • Ensure that the positioning of cameras is not intrusive; and
  • Use signs to alert employees and any visitors to the fact that they are being filmed and recorded.

Following these guidelines reduces the risk of paying out for personal grievances or privacy claims.




Tips on monitoring staff:

  • If your organisation collects sensitive information, allow staff access to computer files on a 'need to know' basis. Otherwise, block access information, and monitor any unwarranted browsing with an alert.
  • Only record conversations with staff (and other individuals) if they have agreed to conversations being recorded.
  • Before recording any phone conversations, let your employee know that calls are recorded, and what they are used for, such as training purposes.
  • Ensure you have comprehensive policies in place around use and monitoring of workplace technology. Consult with staff about workplace policies before implementing them.
  • Be fair and reasonable in your investigation of staff around disciplinary issues.