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Under the Radar? The Employer Perspective on Workplace Privacy

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Ryerson University




Canadian employers and consumers recognize the need to balance workplace privacy with other interests to ensure a competitive economy. The purpose of this report was to document current practices from the employer perspective and to understand how such a balance is viewed and implemented in a Canadian context.

The project was based on a structured interview and analysis methodology, using a cross-country/cross-industry representative sampling and taking into consideration such factors as union representation and employer size. The interviews centred on key indicators such as employer awareness of workplace privacy; the existence and capabilities of a variety of technologies for monitoring/surveillance; the purposes of surveillance; justification for workplace privacy; and government and industry roles.

Federal and provincial Information protection legislation addresses some aspects of workplace privacy. The report provides a description of the legal terrain in Canada, looking at federal and provincial privacy legislation and the impact these laws have on business practices and outlooks. The conceptual approaches to workplace privacy, however, are based on the fundamental concepts of privacy in general.

The authors provide a framework pertaining to prevailing privacy-in-workplace concepts, one based on rights (the European model, based on the right to dignity or a private life) and one based on property (the U.S. model, based on the employer’s ownership of the workplace). The rights model prevails in Quebec and is reflected in its legislation, while the report found that federal and other provincial legislation is often wrongly interpreted by Canadian businesses to reflect the U.S. model when, in fact, it imposes a standard of reasonableness on employers.

Employers’ attitudes on the role of government and industry in dealing with workplace privacy issues were explored. Those interviewed acknowledged that legislation related to privacy acted as motivation for companies to take formal steps to comply. However, no employer saw any need for additional federal privacy legislation on privacy in general, and on workplace privacy in particular. They would, however, welcome guidelines that would clarify existing legislation.

The report focuses on the surveillance and monitoring measures reported by employers, and the purposes for which they were introduced to the workplace. The report evaluates these measures and purposes in light of the rights and property models, and in light of the legislated requirement for such measures to be reasonable.

The report found that Canada appears to be developing a hybrid model of workplace privacy issues management, based on trust. As one employer highlighted, “the interest of the company and the interest of the individual are inseparable?. We feel strongly about building that foundation of trust between the employee and the company”. All employers interviewed agreed that some form of workplace privacy is necessary for the “regular and trouble-free functioning” of their business, and that it indeed may result in increased productivity.

The employers interviewed uniformly insisted, however, that their employees “do not perceive workplace privacy as a ”real’ issue”. The report concludes on that basis that Canadian employers view workplace privacy as a non-issue as well – “under the radar” screen of most employers. The report therefore calls for further research into employees’ attitudes to workplace privacy.

This document is available in the following language(s):

English only

OPC Funded Project

This project received funding support through the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s Contributions Program. The opinions expressed in the summary and report(s) are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. Summaries have been provided by the project authors. Please note that the projects appear in their language of origin.

Contact Information

Ryerson University
350 Victoria Street
Toronto, Ontario
M5B 2K3

Tel: (416) 979-5000

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