As an HR manager, you know that negative attitudes can spread like a bad cold. One disgruntled worker starts griping, and before you know it everyone’s caught the bug.

Of course you can discipline an employee who constantly undermines your team-building efforts, disparages the organization or challenges your authority. But most malcontents won’t confront you directly; they’ll stir up trouble behind your back. So what can you do?

Well, one thing you can’t do is spy on them. That’s what happened in one Illinois hospital, and they’re getting sued.

The hospital wasn’t even the one doing the spying. An employee took it upon herself to become a self-appointed private eye — and still the employer could be liable.

The employee was peeved at one of the physicians on staff at the hospital. She thought he kept short hours, which compromised patient care. And, she knew, he often grumbled about the hospital management. So the employee surreptitiously switched on a dictation machine while the physician was having a gripe session in his office with another doctor who’d been fired.

The machine captured the two beefing about the hospital’s new CEO. The employee made a transcript of the conversation and gave it and the recording to the CEO, who was so incensed that he terminated the first physician’s hospital privileges.

Both doctors sued the hospital for violating the Federal Wiretap Act by intercepting their conversation.

The employee claimed she didn’t turn on the dictating machine during a short visit she paid to the office during the doctors’ conversation. She said it had been accidentally left on. But the court hearing the lawsuit said the doctors’ accusation against her was plausible enough to warrant a trial.

There are lots of good reasons, business and legal, why employees shouldn’t be secretly taping their colleagues, listening in on their phones or snooping in their e-mail.

Wise HR people will:

  • Have a policy barring unauthorized interception of conversations, and
  • Discuss it in training sessions with supervisors and line employees.

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