Violating an employee’s privacy can add up to illegal retaliation if the person has complained of harassment, according to a New York federal court.

The court awarded $50,000 in damages to a police officer whose employer listened to recordings of her telephone calls after she complained about pornography in the workplace. The police department argued that a range of phone calls to and from a number of employees were recorded, and the officer knew this. But the jury believed the officer when she said that while she knew business calls were monitored, she didn’t know the monitoring extended to private conversations such as those she had with her husband.

What did you expect?
Because her reasonable expectation of privacy was violated when the department listened to these calls, the officer was able to show she’d been the victim of an adverse action. And the jury believed these actions were motivated by her harassment complaint.

If you don’t want this kind of trouble, make expectations clear: Be sure your policy manual is clear in what situations employees can – and can’t – expect privacy.

Cite: Dotson v. City of Syracuse, No. 5:04-CV-1388, N.D. NY, 3/2/11.

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