Are you protecting employees’ privacy?

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If you routinely share personal information, such as Social Security numbers, about employees among managers and facilities, take care. With increasing concerns over identity theft nationwide, some courts are beginning to look at practices that once were commonplace with considerably more scrutiny.

If you think courts are unlikely to worry about trucking operations, consider the case of Roseville, Minn.-based LTL carrier Lakeville Motor Express. A group of Lakeville Motor Express drivers had sued the company, claiming that it violated their right of privacy when someone faxed a list of driver names and Social Security numbers to the managers of 16 terminals in six states in an attempt to verify and update company records. A state district court dismissed the suit because there was no indication that the list had been or would be disseminated to the public at large.

But in August of last year, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the decision. The court ruled that a Social Security number is a “private fact” and that “publication” occurred. Social Security numbers, the Appeals Court said, are “such a significant identifier that they facilitate access by others to many of our most personal and private records and can enable someone to impersonate us to our embarrassment or financial loss.”

The extent of distribution clearly was an issue in the Lakeville Motor case, but there is no guarantee that another court in another state would deem even a more closely held dissemination to be problematic. How can you guard against claims of privacy violations? Jay Barry Harris, a 20-year trial attorney with Fineman & Bach in Philadelphia, offers the following guidelines:

  • Note the confidentiality of the material you intend to send.
  • Note on the document or list that the information is for internal use only and is not to be provided be provided to anyone outside the company.
  • Ensure that employees whose personal and confidential information must be shared on occasion among terminals or managers are told immediately upon joining the company how your company handles such matters. Have the new employee sign off on that disclosure.
  • Similarly, include information on how your company handles personal and confidential information in your employee handbook and have each new employee sign a document acknowledging the handbook’s receipt.
  • Don’t fax Social Security numbers or other personal information in the first place. Send it by certified mail to a specific individual. If you must send information by fax, send to a fax machine to which access is limited. The person receiving the information should be alerted that the fax is coming, and that person should be at the fax machine when it is received. The fax should say “For ______________ Only.”
  • Devise a procedure that confines personal and confidential information to a special area that is segregated with limited access or set up a method by which the information is destroyed. If documents are destroyed or shredded, make certain that you have a witness. If the information is stored, it must be in a confidential file accessible by combination or key and only to a few people.

Confidentiality issues are not limited to Social Security numbers, of course. Other information that needs protection includes employee medical information, annual physical results, drug testing results, disciplinary information and any credit or financial information. Take some simple steps to keep your employees’ privacy secure – and your company out of court.