Can The Boss Listen In On Telephone Calls?

©1998 All Rights Reserved

"It's your wife on line two."
"I'll be at the three-thirty meeting in just a minute. I have to make a quick call home to see if my children are back home from school."
"I'll meet you for dinner at 7:30."

We all get an occasional personal call at work from time to time. In many work places, the employer permits employees to make or receive personal phone calls so long as it does not interfere with work. In some jobs, however, employers discourage or strictly prohibit personal calls. Employees running production machines in a factory, for example, generally are not permitted to make or receive personal calls while on the job. Likewise, employees who deal with the public should not be making personal calls while on duty. We all know how irritating this can be.

Employers often complain about employee abuse of the telephone while on the job. One employer response is to monitor or listen in on employee telephone calls. In fact, employer monitoring of employee telephone calls has been a common practice in the telecommunications and telemarketing industries for years.

But, there are strict rules under the law which limits the monitoring of telephone calls. A liquor store employee, for example, won a privacy invasion lawsuit and received a large cash award because her employer monitored telephone calls in a manner that violated the law.

A federal law, referred to as the "wire tap law," prohibits the interception of wire or telephone communications and makes such action a criminal offense. However, the law permits an employer to monitor business calls on an extension phone so long as the employee is informed that monitoring will occur and the monitoring is done for a business purpose in the ordinary course of business.

So when can an employer monitor employee telephone calls? Here are some telephone tips to help respect an employee's privacy on the job, and keep an employer out of legal trouble.

• Identify a business purpose for monitoring telephone calls, such as monitoring service quality or protection against telephone threats.

• Prepare a written policy which defines guidelines for management regarding when and how any telephone monitoring may be conducted.

• Prepare a written communication to notify employees regarding when and how employee telephone calls may be subject to telephone monitoring.

• Obtain a signed acknowledgment from employees about the telephone monitoring policy.

• Limit monitoring to business calls; avoid listening in to personal calls.

• Provide an un-monitored phone for employee use for personal calls during non-working time periods.

• Provide a message to the caller that phone calls may be monitored for quality or other specified business purposes.

While an employer may feel that there is justification to monitor employee telephone calls, remember to be sensitive to an employee's expectation of privacy on the job. Consult a processional for advice on balancing these conflicting needs to avoid unnecessary employee relations problems or possible legal claims.

William S. Hubbartt is president of Hubbartt & Associates, a St. Charles, IL consulting firm specializing in employee compensation, employee handbooks, personnel policies and supervisory training. ( Mr. Hubbartt is author of The New Battle Over Workplace Privacy, published by AMACOM Books.

Print page