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Harassment and workplace privacy rights case settles for $1 million

When government employers are held accountable for unacceptable behavior through employment discrimination suits, the settlement or judgment awards are often paid with tax payer money. As a result, large damage awards paid by local governments tend to make headlines.

In one recent case, a law enforcement officer was paid over $1 million after fellow law enforcement officers subjected her to sexual harassment through violation of her privacy rights.

Essentially, 16 urban and suburban law enforcement jurisdictions were held accountable for repeatedly mining the officer's personal data. When 140 employees in these jurisdictions improperly accessed her driver's license data over 400 times in six years, the officer's privacy was undoubtedly violated. Federal law protects workers from unauthorized and non-employment-related data mining of personal information.

The motives of the officer's co-workers were both simple and crass. The female officer is physically attractive and her co-workers wanted to gawk. The privacy invasion itself is offensive enough to warrant action. However, the real need for accountability came from the failure of law enforcement leadership to police the data mining infractions committed by their employees.

Understandably, when the female officer became aware of the snooping, she became uncomfortable and withdrew from work-related gatherings. She eventually even chose to move to another address in order to avoid potential prying from those who had looked at her driver's license.

Only after the officer filed a lawsuit did leadership respond to the situation by disciplining offenders. Whether an employer is public or private, large or small, it should not take the filing of a lawsuit for employers to require respectful and non-harassing behavior from their employees.

Source: Star Tribune, "A costly lesson in data privacy abuse," Nov. 9, 2012

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