Employee COVID Antics Online Could Erode Privacy When Back to Work

By Joanne Cleaver

First of two parts.

Lizet Ocampo is internet famous as the boss who recast herself as a potato for a Friday virtual office meeting and then couldn’t figure out how to un-potato herself for Monday’s staff teleconference.

After a staffer shared the images online earlier this month, gaining nearly a million likes, Ocampo made the most of her turn as a star tuber, joking about the unexpected downsides of working from home.

But the real test of her humor will come when she and her staff eventually return to on-site work for People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group in Washington.

Will they let her live it down, or will her accidental acclaim take the starch out of her professional reputation?

Workplace privacy has been shredded as millions of Americans suddenly started working from the uneasy convenience of their homes, gaining unexpected glimpses into one another’s bedrooms and kitchens — not to mention pets, kids and spouses.

Privacy won’t snap back as onsite work resumes, however. Employees will need to reclaim their workplace privacy, if not remnants of dignity, as they start to filter back.

Human resources executives are figuring out how to combine standard guidance from existing government regulations with new instructions from public-health officials.

Creating Safe Workplaces

Top-priority issues, human resources consultants told Digital Privacy News, are how to establish safe workplaces for everyone, even as relationships digest the longer-term effects of emergency-inflicted remote work.

That means employees need to proactively assert their own privacy habits to make sure that what happened at home stays at home.

“Have employee privacy rights gone on hiatus because of COVID-19?” asked Karla Grossenbacher, a partner in the D.C. office of the Seyfarth Shaw LLP law firm. “That’s not true.

“They’re alive and well,” she said. “Though there has been unprecedented leeway during this period, if employers don’t proceed with caution, people will remember — and file claims.”

“Dress and appearance policies don’t subside because you’re working from home.”

— Amber Clayton, Society of Human Resource Management.

Basic Rules Still Apply

Grossenbacher and other workplace-law experts told Digital Privacy News that baseline privacy rules applied all along to telecommuting and videoconference staff: joking about a hunky husband that crosses the line to sexual harassment is still actionable; housekeeping judgments should not affect assessments of workers’ professional performances — and managers must not draw conclusions about individual health without proof of illness.

From sloppy homemaking to politically charged posters, employees working from home still need to adhere to workplace standards, said Amber Clayton, who leads experts who answer questions from human resources managers at the Society of Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va.

“Dress and appearance policies don’t subside because you’re working from home,” she said. Home workspaces are analogous to social media. “If you don’t want it shared,” Clayton told Digital Privacy News, “don’t put it out there.”

Thursday: Well Enough to Return?

Joanne Cleaver is a writer in Charlotte, N.C.

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