Ohio employment law: Recording conversations in the workplace

Labor and employment attorney Stephen E. Imm
In an age where almost everyone carries a smartphone almost all the time, it is possible for each of us to make a video or audio recording of events and conversations at the touch of a button. YouTube, as we all know, is filled with impromptu video recordings people have made with their cell phones.
What implications does this have for the modern workplace? Are employees permitted to record conversations they have at work with their co-workers or supervisors? What if an employee wants to gather “evidence” of sexual harassment that they believe is taking place? What if a worker wants to record a conversation with his or her boss when the worker is being reviewed or disciplined? Do they have the right to do that? Do they have to tell the other people who are being recorded?
Federal and Ohio law permit an individual to make such recordings, as long as at least one party party to the conversation being recorded – such as the party recording it – has given permission. Importantly, the individual making the recording does NOT have to have the permission of the OTHER parties being recorded – as long as the person recording is himself a party to the conversation.
(This contrasts with hiding a microphone or cell phone in a location in which the people being recorded are not a part of a conversation with the ower of the device.  That likely would be illegal.)
Employers, however, may want to prohibit such recordings in their workplaces. And many employers have instituted policies against it. They feel that their workers should be able to express themselves at work without worrying about whether they are being recorded. They believe a policy against recording encourages candor in meetings and other interactions. If people are concerned that they may be recorded, they are likely to be more guarded in what they say. This may discourage open and honest communication.
Can an employer bar its employees from making any recordings in the workplace, at least if they are made without the permission of the company or the person being recorded?
It may surprise you to know that such policies have been ruled to be illegal. The National Labor Relations Board has held the a blanket prohibition against recordings in the workplace can inhibit the rights workers have to engage in “concerted activity.” This right – which exists in both union and non-union workplaces – guarantees that employees can talk and work together regarding their working conditions, and regarding other terms and conditions of their employment.
In a case involving the retailer Whole Foods, the NLRB ruled that the company’s policy prohibiting all workplace recordings was impermissible, because it could have a chilling effect on the employees’ right to engage in “concerted activity.” That ruling was recently upheld by a federal appeals court. Other courts, and maybe the Supreme Court, may weigh in on the issue in the future.
For now, employers should have any policies regarding workplace recordings reviewed by legal counsel, to make sure they are in line with the NLRB’s decision. And employees should know that, in most instances, they have the right to make such recordings.
Give us a call if you have any questions about this important and evolving area of the law.
Stephen E. Imm is an experienced labor and employment attorney who can help with your workplace issues.  He can be reached at 513-943-5678.