Searching employee’s locked desk

Boundaries and expectations of privacy in the workplace
By Brian Kenny
|Canadian Employment Law Today|Last Updated: 02/19/2014

Question: Does an employer have the right to search an employee’s locked desk without the employee’s permission? Is the desk considered the employer’s property with personal items in it?

Answer: Employer searches of employees and their personal effects are controversial. On the one hand, employees have a clear interest in being free from unnecessary intrusions into their privacy. On the other hand, employers have competing interests: ensuring the safety of workers and others, protecting their property from damage, enforcing company polices and achieving productivity.

In all searches, the most important concept is the employee’s reasonable expectation of privacy. This is the governing principle in determining what searches are acceptable and which go too far. In R. v. Cole, the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed that an employee’s personal information, even if stored on computers owned by the employer, may attract a reasonable expectation of privacy. A similar argument could be made for a locked desk or other storage areas.