Your right to privacy at your job is balanced against the employer’s right to investigate misconduct and ensure that employees are following workplace rules. The constitutional protections against governmental intrusions on the privacy of citizens do not apply to private employers. You can probably assume that your employer has the right to conduct a search at work if it is reasonably limited and based on a legitimate, work-related reason. Very few state laws cover the issue directly, so courts must make these decisions by balancing the interests of the employer against the interests of the employee in the specific situation.
If there is a potential security issue in the workplace, an employer likely has a strong reason to investigate an employee who is reasonably suspected of causing the issue. At the other end of the spectrum, an employer that tries to conduct a search in an employee restroom or a changing room probably will have trouble validating that search, unless it informed employees that it would monitor those areas. As a general guide, employees can use the usual practices of their employer as well as their own intuition in determining what is likely to be reasonable.
Types of Searches
Searches that are limited to the workspaces of employees are likely to be found reasonable. Searches involving the personal property of employees are more likely to be found reasonable than searches that involve the bodies and clothes of employees. Full body searches or searches in restrooms are almost never justified. Random searches are rarely justified because the employer has no particular reason to suspect the employee being searched of any misconduct.
Employers can lay a broader foundation for a potential search by taking steps to reduce an employee’s expectation of privacy at work. They might inform employees of a policy that their workstations will be subject to search, for example. An employee then probably could not argue that they had a reasonable expectation of privacy in that area.
Detention of Employees
An employer does not have the right under any circumstances to detain an employee in a certain area to coerce them into permitting a search or to prevent them from accessing the area being searched. If this happens to you, you may be able to file a false imprisonment claim against your employer. These claims may be successful even if you were not forcefully restrained, such as by being locked in a room. Since an employer has substantial authority over an employee due to the nature of the employment relationship, telling an employee that they cannot leave an area may be sufficient to support a false imprisonment claim.
Workplace Searches, What’s the Law?
It’s important to know that protections against searches and legal expectations of privacy are different at a private (i.e., not governmental) place of employment. However, some states do have additional protections in place - check your state law to see how you may be covered.