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THE QUESTION

My employer has installed surveillance cameras in our small office. People need their jobs, so it seems everyone has adjusted to the cameras, but some are uneasy about how much more spying is being done that we don't know about. There are also rumours that there are listening devices. The boss placed one camera in the front office and it's unnerving because it shows he doesn't trust anyone and it does more harm than good when people are treated like objects.

I can see big retail operations using cameras, but this is a close and personal application and it feels like jail. Even banks mount their cameras at ceiling level so they are not in your face. Am I overreacting, or is this commonplace? Can I do anything about the cameras? Or am I just being too sensitive?

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THE FIRST ANSWER

Bill Howatt

Howatt HR Consulting, Kentville, N.S.

Employers commonly use video surveillance for security reasons, such as protection from external wrongdoing, and surreptitious surveillance for protection from employee wrongdoing, such as theft. Federal and provincial privacy legislation impacts the surveillance and privacy interests of employers and staff, such as in the Protection of Personal Information and Electronic Documents Act.

While you might want to consult a lawyer to check the law that applies in your jurisdiction, the general approach to workplace surveillance is reflected in the federal Privacy Commissioner's four-question test: Is the camera demonstrably necessary to meet the specific need? Is it likely to be effective in meeting that need? Is the loss of privacy proportionate to the benefit gained? Is there a less privacy-invasive way to achieve the same end?

Your employer cannot have video surveillance just to have his own personal reality show. Cameras in clearly private areas, such as washrooms, would be a definite red flag. However, cameras in work and public areas require more analysis, and your boss needs a defensible operational reason that meets the above test.

You are well within your rights to ask your employer why he believes he needs video surveillance. I suggest you have an open conversation where you seek to understand why he feels the need for video surveillance. You can express your discomfort and what you believe others are feeling. Be clear that your objective is only to understand the employer's operational purpose. If you are not satisfied, contact the federal Privacy Commissioner's office (or the equivalent provincial counterpart) to determine whether the circumstances of the cameras are violating the rules, and how you can exercise your rights.

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THE SECOND ANSWER

Greg A. Chung-Yan

Associate professor, industrial/organizational psychology, University of Windsor

I preface this answer with the disclaimer that Canadian laws around monitoring are not well-established. Before making a legally based complaint, talk to a legal expert.

You and your co-workers are monitored at unusual angles, you don't know why you are being monitored, and you suspect there are other monitoring devices. Sounds like the beginnings of a horror movie to me.

Keeping in mind my disclaimer, let's assume an employer has the right to monitor its workers. Having the right does not automatically make it good management practice. Regardless of any well-meaning goals on your employer's part (reducing theft, preventing bullying), he is fostering a negative environment because he implemented the monitoring without communicating the purpose of the surveillance or how information will be used, protected, or stored. Employers should collect information in a manner that respects the dignity of workers; if there are less-intrusive ways to do that (such as cameras at a higher elevation) then they should use them.

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Meet with your boss and express your concerns. Employers should have a written policy on their monitoring practices, and you can ask to see them, suggesting that they be circulated to employees to alleviate their fears. If there is no policy, the request will get him thinking about establishing one. Couch everything in terms of trying to improve the work environment rather than as a formal complaint.

Are you facing a burning issue at work? Need help navigating that minefield? Let our Nine To Five experts help solve your dilemma. E-mail your questions to ninetofive@globeandmail.com. Confidentiality ensured. Weigh in with your view at tgam.ca/careers. Check out past columns at http://tgam.ca/DjTz

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