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Is it Illegal for an Employer to Give Out Personal Information?

August 22, 2022

Written by Complete Payroll

employer privacy laws lock

Recent surveys indicate that over 70% of employees are concerned about the privacy of their personal data at work. But when does an employer's action cross the line? From the moment someone applies for a position, employers have access to a plethora of personal information ranging from addresses to social security numbers.

Today, the risk of identity theft from leaked personal data is all too real. That's why it's vital for both employers and employees to understand their legal obligations and rights regarding personal data protection.

In this article, we'll delve into what constitutes personal information, when employers can legally disclose it, and recent developments in the field.

What is personal information? 

Depending on state laws, the definition of "personal information" can vary. For instance, recent legislation in California defines this as:

  • Education information
  • Identifiers
  • Characteristics of a protected category
  • Biometric information
  • Internet activity
  • Geolocation data

While not exhaustive, this list provides a foundational understanding for companies to determine what constitutes personal data.

Under what circumstances can employers disclose private information?

The permissibility of disclosing employee information varies by state. It's imperative to stay informed about both state and federal laws governing employee privacy.

Generally, employers can disclose an employee's personal information if:

  • It's mandated by law.
  • There's a legitimate company need, such as ensuring workplace safety.

For instance, if an employee's mental health condition poses a potential threat to colleagues, employers might be legally required to disclose this information to pertinent personnel for safety precautions.

However, unauthorized disclosure without a valid reason can be deemed an invasion of privacy, leading to significant legal repercussions for the employer.

What kind of information can’t be disclosed?

Various federal and state laws dictate the bounds of data disclosure. For instance:

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that medical records be kept separate from general personnel files. Only supervisors or managers responsible for accommodations can access these.

  • The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) necessitates confidentiality for documents involving medical histories, again with exceptions for essential personnel.

Recent Developments

In 2020, California pioneered with the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), offering employees more control over their personal data. While it may not directly impact everyone, its provisions could set a precedent for other states. The CCPA mandates:

  • Transparent communication to employees about collected or sold personal data.
  • Deletion of personal information after the legal retention period.
  • Employee's right to request and obtain their data records.
  • Option for employees to opt-out of personal data sales.

California’s laws will surely become a framework for employee privacy rights nationwide. For the latest information on legislation in your state and beyond, look no further than Complete Payroll’s blog. We have articles about data privacy and much more to help answer all of your HR and payroll questions.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided herein does not constitute the provision of legal advice, tax advice, accounting services or professional consulting of any kind. The information provided herein should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional legal, tax, accounting, or other professional advisers. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should consult a professional adviser who has been provided with all pertinent facts relevant to your particular situation and for your particular state(s) of operation.

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