Q. I recently took a job as an administrative assistant at a major hospital. Initially, the position was all that I hoped it would be.
After several months, it turned out to be the job from hell, with a supervisor who micromanaged his employees. I learned I was constantly being watched via a two-way mirror, my phone calls and voice-mail messages were being monitored, and my computer files were being reviewed. It has become so harassing, and causes me so much stress, that my hair has started falling out.
I contacted the personnel people, and they said they were aware of the mirror and other issues, and they had gotten complaints from the previous administrative assistant, but there was nothing they could do.
Is there anything I can do legally about this situation? Or do I just need to quit?
A. Many people find it so creepy to be watched without their knowledge that it has spawned a whole genre of horror films, such as "Psycho," in which the motel owner was a peeper.
In the workplace, however, surreptitious observation is an increasingly common phenomenon, particularly as tiny, concealed video cameras and inexpensive computer-monitoring software make it easier to observe workers without their knowledge. The American Management Association, whose members employ about one-quarter of the U.S. work force, found in 1997 that about 35 percent of all firms reported they monitored employees in some way, including recording their telephone calls and e-mail or videotaping them as they work. In April, when the organization repeated its survey, it found that 45 percent of the firms said they were electronically monitoring their workers. The practice is most common among financial services firms, but these days even some working parents use "nanny cams" to keep an eye on their babysitters at home and at day-care centers.
It's understandable why employers do it: Some workers spend more time shirking work than performing it. Some workers steal. Monitoring workers can help ensure good performance.
In some cases, remote observation works in employees' favor. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported a big decline in the number of slayings of convenience-store workers. Experts said video cameras are playing a role in saving workers' lives because criminals don't want their deeds replayed in front of a jury.
The AMA advises its members that, out of fairness and to preserve employee morale, they should inform workers if they are being monitored. The AMA's surveys found that four-fifths of employers tell workers if they are doing it.
Undisclosed observation seems to steam workers the most. According to the American Civil Liberties Union's workplace rights project, this issues generates more work-related complaints to ACLU offices around the country than any other.
"They are extremely upset," said Jeremy Gruber, legal director for the ACLU project. "They've not known that monitoring was going on, and then they found out."
Employees often call to find out what legal action they can take to stop it. Gruber tells them there is nothing they can do because there are no laws preventing such monitoring. The only exceptions are if company officials are watching people in the bathroom or while they are undressing in a locker room, places, the courts have said, where people have an "explicit expectation of privacy."
"My best advice is for all workers is to conduct themselves as though they were being monitored and behave appropriately," Gruber said.
Q. Is it illegal to look for another job?
If you do not use company time or resources in your search, is there any reason your employer could fire you if he or she discovered you were seeking another job?
Please don't use my name.
A. Guess you missed that news flash about involuntary servitude. Yes, you are free to look for another job whenever you want.
But it's also important to remember that, unless you are a union member or are covered under some other kind of contractual agreement, the underlying principle of the American workplace is employment at will, which means the employer has the right to discharge the employee for any reason that the employer deems appropriate. That said, it would demonstrate very poor judgment for a worker to spend a lot of time on one company's payroll actively seeking another job, or to use company equipment to do so. And doing so in an obvious manner might push a manager who is already displeased with a worker's performance to consider firing the worker, which might make the job-hunting process more difficult.
Happy news from the graduate of Georgetown University law school who had five different jobs in the past 10 years amid the financial services industry's shakeout and found herself looking for a position again. She'd written because she found that some prospective employers thought she was unstable because she'd changed jobs and employers so often.
She reports that she has a new job as in-house counsel to a young software firm, handling a wide range of issues.
"What I found very interesting about this was that the aspects of my background that the banks, brokerage firms, pension funds and law firms found questionable (the two layoffs, the number of jobs, my eclectic professional background) were all considered assets by [this company] and other high-tech firms," she wrote. "I expect this is the wave of the future, given what is happening in the workplace."