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Staff Privacy in a Dental Practice - Know Your Rights

So much time is spent focusing on the importance of patient’s privacy in dental practices that very little thought goes into staff privacy. If you use a workplace cell phone to send personal WhatsApp messages, can your boss take a look at what you’ve sent? What about your internet history? Can your employer monitor what you get up to outside work? There are a lot of questions about workplace privacy that need to be answered.

According to the experts, the answer isn’t straight forward and really depends on your workplace.

Electronic devices

The Texas Workforce Commission states that an employer can impose any restriction on a company-issued cell phone. The Kieligh Law Firm goes on to explain that employers can, and often do, record many different types of employee communications. The information they monitor includes:

  • Emails sent through work accounts or from work devices
  • Keystrokes (including usernames and passwords to private accounts) from work computers
  • Phone calls and texts made on work cell phones
  • Website history accessed from work devices
  • Instant message conversations carried out on work devices

This means if you log into your personal email account from a work device and send an email to a friend, your boss might have the right to read that email. Equally, if you browse the internet on a work device, your boss might also have the right to check the websites you’ve been looking at.

The above doesn’t just apply to Texas. Although laws do vary by state, the same applies all over the country. Your employer has the right to check whatever you’re doing with work laptops, tablets and phones, as long as they include it in the HR handbook or workplace policy.

Vacations

Summer used to be the time when dental practice owners would look to temporary staffing solutions to help fill in the gaps when regular staff took their summer vacation. But COVID-19 changed all that. After being closed for months, many businesses are imposing vacation restrictions so they can be sure they’ve got enough staff to remain open over the summer.

Although this is an HR nightmare, it’s totally legal as long as companies inform their staff and the staff agree to it. However, with the number of COVID-19 cases rising around the world, the question of whether your boss can determine where you’re going on vacation, not just when, comes into play.

Off-duty conduct laws prevent employers in most states from forbidding employee travel. But some states, such as New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, have started imposing mandatory quarantine periods for staff returning from specific states with high active cases of the virus. Employees can choose between self-isolating for 14 days or showing a negative PCR test before coming back to work.

The National Law Review states that employers can’t stop employees from traveling to non-restricted areas for personal reasons, like vacations. All they can do is explain the risks, inform you of any workplace policy changes that mean you’re unable to return to work and monitor you when you do return.

Overall, your employer can dictate when you take your vacation leave. For example, if another member of the dental team already has vacation time booked for when you want to take leave, your boss can refuse your request because it would leave them understaffed. However, they can’t choose specifically where you take your vacation. That’s left up to you.

Note: Another thing you should be aware of is the need to inform your employer in advance if you want to take vacation leave. You can’t tell them the evening before you leave for somewhere that you’ll be unavailable for two weeks. There’s no legal requirement about how much notice you need to give, but it’s usually something documented in an employee handbook. 

Personal time

There are several laws prohibiting employers in the private sector intruding into their employees’ personal lives. Some states actively prevent employers from looking into their employees’ off-duty activity because of their right to privacy. Some states take this even further and prohibit employers from taking job-related actions against workers based on their lawful conduct outside the workplace. 

Even in states which don’t provide workers with statutory or constitutional rights to privacy, it’s generally illegal for employers to intrude into any aspect of life that has a reasonable expectation of privacy. That means your employer can’t legally get involved in anything you do while at home, at a restaurant with friends, at the beach with family, etc.

So as long as you’re not engaging in illegal activity, your boss cannot legally monitor anything you do outside of working hours and outside the workplace. They also can’t take any professional action within the dental practice based on what you do outside of it. It doesn’t matter what bizarre hobbies or interests you have outside work. As long as you’re a great RDH within the dental practice, that’s all they can legally be concerned with.

How much control is too much?

As a dental hygienist, your employer is very restricted in how much they can control you. While they’re able to dictate a lot of your day-to-day activities within the dental practice, such as when you take your breaks, which dental instruments you use, the treatment you provide patients, etc, that completely ends as soon as you step outside the dental office.

Yes, they can monitor almost everything you do using workplace phones, tablets, laptops and computers, but that’s reasonable. During work hours, you’re meant to be working. You shouldn’t be sending personal messages from a work phone or playing games on a work laptop if you’re not on a break. If you do, it’s likely your employer has every right to check up on you and you risk being fired if they find something that they don’t like.

How to take back control

When you work in someone else’s business, they’re always going to have some control over you. But there is a way you can reduce that control, by becoming an independent contractor dental hygienist. When you work for yourself, you decide your work schedule, the places you work and your hourly rate.

As you’re a freelancer and not an employee, you’re also in charge of the tools, supplies and methods you use when treating patients. While the dentist can recommend the equipment and techniques they’d like you to use, they can’t force you to if you prefer it your way.

The best thing is if you find yourself working for an overly-controlling dentist, you simply ride it out until the end of your temp contract and then never accept another work request from them again. You’re not stuck working there for years like regular employees.

Read every word

How much privacy a dental hygienist has at work really depends on the dental practice. Each office can set their own rules, but you have to legally agree to them first. When signing a workplace contract, take the time to read every single word and make sure you understand what’s written. It’s a long and boring job, but it’s worth it to know how much of your privacy you’re signing away.

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