Is it Acceptable to Video Employees without their knowledge?

The European Court of Human Rights inadvertently sought out controversy in the last few months when they approved the use of a Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) system within a Spanish supermarket. The use of CCTV in many businesses across Europe is not a controversial topic per se – however, the implementation and installation of such a system without informing employees of its existence, and that they are being monitored and recorded is, however, tricky territory. In this specific case that has made headlines across Europe, employees were informed there were cameras at the two entrance and exit points of the store but were not informed about the cameras that were installed to monitor the cash register and point of sale.

Perhaps if the outcome of this story had been different, this topic would not have made news; however, after the installation of these cameras, it was observed that a number of employees within the supermarket were stealing from their workplace. Afterwards, the employees in question were terminated from their positions in the workplace. This has created a difficult situation for legislation to interpret as there are two ethical dilemmas at stake.  We can argue that the employees were not informed about these cameras and that this was a direct breach of their privacy; or we can view this termination to be fair based on the fact that these workers were caught stealing from their workplace!

In Spain, where this matter took place, the law in question requires employers to notify employees how their personal data is collected, why it is collected and the reason for doing so, before any data collection methods are enforced. The present issue here is one of balance. The supermarket employer wanted to collect evidence to determine who was stealing from the store, however in doing so, they didn’t account for the fact that they were violating the employees’ right to privacy. This story has created some interesting dialogue between the European Court of Human Rights and the Spanish Court System as they argue which of the current legislations take precedence in this case.

Other employers across Europe that use CCTV are urged to have conversations with their employees regarding the use of CCTV within the workplace. More specifically, these conversations should explain that there is a possibility that the employee could be filmed while at work, what the CCTV will be used for and how much of an intrusion of privacy it will create for the employees. When installing CCTV in the workplace, it is important that the employer ensures they have legitimate grounds for installing it in the first place and that less intrusive means have already been attempted in order to protect the privacy of the employees involved. Also, when installing CCTV systems, it would be beneficial to inform employees of what measures will be taken based on their actions. For instance, had the employees in that Spanish supermarket been informed that there would be cameras spread around the store with the hopes of lowering the instances of theft in the workplace, and that those caught stealing would be persecuted accordingly, then this workplace would not be working through the legalities of such a system as they presently are.

Ultimately, the European Court of Human Rights decided that by informing the employees there were cameras within the workplace (though not specifically discussing where they were located, or why they had been installed) the employer had provided their employees with enough fair notice about them being recorded at work, and that the videos obtained were not threatening their right to privacy. What is important to realize is that the time involved going through the court system could have been reduced if employers had been more open and transparent with their employees about where and why the cameras had been installed in the workplace. Had these conversations already taken place, they may not have had any instances of employee theft taking place in the future.

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