Increases in affordability and availability have made video cameras ubiquitous in both public and private places across Ontario. More so than ever before employers are installing cameras in the workplace.
Video camera surveillance raises interesting employment law issues for both employees and employers. While video cameras are common place in retail stores, banks, manufacturing facilities and casinos, what about in an office environment? Or in a break room? Does an employer have to tell its employees about surveillance cameras or can they be hidden?
Right to privacy at work
The Ontario Courts have commented that the Ontario legislature “has not gone very far in safeguarding an employee’s right to privacy in the workplace.” In Ontario, there is no specific privacy legislation aimed at the private sector. Neither the Employment Standards Act nor the Occupational Health and Safety Act make any mention of an employer’s obligation or the employee’s rights regarding privacy. Only Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (“PIPEDA”) applies.
PIPEDA requires a genuine purpose for video camera surveillance in the workplace. Or, in other words, a purpose that a “reasonable person would consider appropriate in the circumstances.” The test set out by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (the “OPCC”) to determine the appropriateness for video camera monitoring is as follows:
- Is the camera demonstrably necessary to meet a specific need?
- Is it likely to be effective in meeting that need?
- Is the loss of privacy proportional to the benefit gained?
- Is there a less privacy-invasive way of achieving the same end?
Although its aimed at public institutions, the OPCC publishes some very instructive examples:
- “A minor offence such as littering would, in general, not be considered a substantial or pressing problem. It would, therefore, not meet the required criteria to justify the use of video surveillance.”
- “A dimly lit area of a public school has been the site of ongoing vandalism and violence. Before considering video surveillance, the school should evaluate the effectiveness of less intrusive alternatives such as increased lighting and foot patrols.”
- “A video camera that monitors a parking lot indirectly captures information about adjacent properties. To limit the amount of personal information collected by it, the camera is set up to automatically avoid or black out any area or property adjacent to the parking lot.”
Legitimate purpose can be to ensure the safety and security of customers and employees, reduce or deter illegal conduct, or to reduce the risk of legal liability.
Employers must balance the need for video surveillance vs employees’ right to privacy
For purposes of deterring theft, vandalism, assault and sexual harassment, surveillance cameras may be permitted. In grocery stores, banks, manufactories, retail or restaurants, where cash and inventory are stored, there is a reasonable purpose for having cameras. Further, for employees who work in public facing places, such as at reception of a business, there may be no reasonable expectation of privacy in the first place.
On the other hand, in private locations such as washrooms and lunch or break areas it is reasonable for both employees and customers to expect privacy.
In the case of Colwell v. Cornerstone Properties Inc., Ms. Colwell sued for constructive dismissal after her employer installed a secret hidden camera in her private office. The Court did not expressly address whether video cameras are permitted in the office, but instead found that the placement of the hidden cameras, and subsequent lies, violated the implied contractual term of employment, that “each party would treat the other in good faith and fairly”, and poisoned the work environment. Subsequently the Courts have stated that “the placement of a video camera in an employee’s office without his or her knowledge is a serious and intrusive violation of the employee’s privacy.”
Video cameras may be permitted in an office if employees are informed
In a decision from February, 2018, Rouse v. Drake & Drake, Justice Conlon dealt with a wrongful dismissal action of a hygienist from a Dental Office. In this case, Ms. Rouse made her dislike for the surveillance cameras clear prior to, during, and after their installation. She was found by the Court to have “deliberately manipulated the security cameras.” The Court considered her intentional conduct, in rendering the surveillance camera in her office ineffective, as one of the factors that could justify a termination for cause. Ultimately, however, the Court decided for other reasons that there was not cause for her termination.
Audio recording is not permitted
Did you know that Amazon’s Echo can be set up to allow listening in on conversations in other rooms. Amazon calls this feature “drop in”. Given how accessible devices like these are, what is an employees reasonable expectation of privacy, when it comes to their conversations around the office?
In terms of audio recording, employers could find themselves criminally liable under section 184 of the Criminal Code if they are intercepting private conversations unless one or more of the participants consents. Practically speaking this means that conversations between employees cannot be recorded.
Video cameras can be used in Ontario Workplaces to record video, but not audio, so long as there is a genuine purpose for doing so and employees are informed. Employers should publish and circulate to their employees a video surveillance policy containing guidelines and procedures for the collection, use, and disclosure of the information obtained by video surveillance and publish signage to remove any reasonable expectation of privacy.
In addition, employers should take measures to ensure the recorded images are stored securely, with limited access, and regularly destroyed or deleted.
Contact Justin W. Anisman
Justin W. Anisman is an Employment Lawyer at the Toronto law firm Brauti Thorning Zibarras LLP. Justin advises both companies and individuals in all aspects of employment law including wrongful dismissal, human rights and discrimination.