By Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, RDH, BS, MBA
My coworkers and I (seven of us) have been dismayed to find that our general practice doctor recently installed video cameras in all of the treatment rooms, front desk, break room, and back entrance that records a live feed delivered to his phone or laptop. We were not told that the cameras were being installed or why. Some of us have worked in the practice for more than 10 years. We are not located in a high-crime area, and our office has never been broken into. The building our office is in also has an alarm system.
Is this a trust issue? Is it an invasion of our privacy? What are the rights of employees and patients to know that they are being watched and videotaped?
Since I first wrote about office video surveillance in 2013, I have received many emails with the same questions that you have posed. So, I think the subject is worth revisiting.
Having been in dentistry since 1972 and working with multitudes of dental practices across the country, I’ve never found employee theft of goods to have been an issue. I know it’s possible for an employee to steal a few rolls of toilet paper or possibly some postage stamps, but I cannot remember a single past employer or client sharing that he or she had a problem with employee theft of tangible goods from the dental office.
However, it is estimated about one in three dentists will experience embezzlement. Employee embezzlement of funds is more likely to happen when employers do not have systems in place to prevent such occurrences. Even with good systems, some computer-savvy employees devise ways to circumvent safeguards. Evidently, embezzlement is a growing problem, and experts estimate that businesses lose 5% of revenues to employee fraud every year.
Theft of time is quite common and problematic in some offices, especially with the computerization of most dental practices today. From browsing Facebook to online shopping, employees can spend copious amounts of time while “on the clock,” without even thinking that they may be stealing time from their employer. The temptation is more prevalent with business assistants, since they are not as closely scrutinized by the boss during the workday. As a consultant, I spend a significant amount of time at the business desk where I catch business assistants scrolling through Facebook when they are supposed to be working. Or I’ll see Facebook in the toolbar, which is kept minimized until I walk away. I believe some people actually become addicted to programs like this, and it’s no wonder that some employers have had to take measures to block programs such as Facebook.
Texting during the workday is another huge source of time theft. Some employers have resorted to implementing policies that prohibit staff members from checking their cell phones until break or lunchtime. One of my clients complained to me that his dental assistant was spending excessive time in the restroom. So, one day when she laid her phone down on the counter and walked away, he checked her messages and found a long string of text messages - all time stamped - that were generated when she was in the bathroom. Busted!
It’s a sad commentary when dentists feel they have to spend money to install surveillance equipment so they can keep an eye on the people they have hired. I believe trust is the foundation on which all good relationships are built, and if the doctor cannot trust the people on the payroll, then how can he or she possibly like them and enjoy working with them?
It’s also disturbing when doctors have to tell staff members not to engage in certain behaviors, such as texting during work time, that detract from the job at hand. Theft is theft, whether it is time or tangible goods.
As to privacy issues, it is not illegal for employers to install video cameras in areas that are considered public. However, it is considered an invasion of privacy to have cameras in dressing rooms, restrooms, or areas where privacy is expected. A Texas dentist was sentenced to 21 days in prison in 2014 for videotaping an employee changing clothes in the office bathroom.
An article by Lisa Guerin, JD, titled, “Can My Employer Videotape Me at Work?” discusses how employers try to diminish an employee’s expectation of privacy, writing, “Private employers sometimes try to diminish an employee’s expectation of privacy by giving advance notice of surveillance or monitoring. In recent years, employers have done this especially when it comes to monitoring an employee’s electronic activities at work. For example, many employers adopt policies in their employee handbooks telling employees that their Internet use or work email may be monitored by the company. Employees on notice of such a policy would have trouble later arguing that they had a reasonable expectation of privacy in these communications.”
If the video also includes audio, that is called “wiretapping” and is illegal on both the state and federal levels. It is permissible for employers to record telephone conversations to ensure quality, as long as both parties know they are being audio recorded. If the video is silent, then it is not illegal.
During my entire clinical career, I always had good communication lines with the doctors with whom I worked. If any of them had ever installed video surveillance cameras, I would probably have been the first to ask, “Hey, what’s with the cameras? Are we going through too many cotton rolls or something?” If you ask your boss, you might be surprised at the answer. It could be that he found out that his malpractice or liability insurance rates would be reduced if he had video cameras. Or there may be a problem of which you are not aware (and he will not share), such as missing funds. You never know, but you can bet that there was something compelling that caused the doctor to go to the trouble and expense of video surveillance.
I can understand why you feel offended that your boss would feel the need to watch you and your coworkers. The cameras may seem to insinuate that people are up to no good, and if you are an honest person, that insinuation would be a personal affront.
However, try to put yourself in your boss’s position. He has a business to run, and if he’s busy, he can’t be in two places at the same time. The cameras are an objective communication tool that may or may not point to a problem. If you are an honest employee, you have nothing to fear. Just do your work, and from time to time, you might just smile and wave at the camera as if to say, “I know you are watching, and that’s OK.”
All the best,
DIANNE GLASSCOE WATTERSON, RDH, BS, MBA, is an award-winning author, speaker, and consultant. She has published hundreds of articles, numerous textbook chapters, and two books. Dianne’s new DVD on instrument sharpening is now available on her website at wattersonspeaks.com under the “Products” tab. Visit her website for information about upcoming speaking engagements. Dianne may be contacted at (336) 472-3515 or by e-mail at [email protected].