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Private Lives Shouldn’t Be Bosses’ Business, Workers Say : Poll: Psychological tests are widely opposed in national survey. But 61% say employers respect employees’ privacy.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Reflecting strong concerns about employee privacy rights, a survey released Thursday shows that a vast majority of workers object to psychological tests and other efforts by their companies to pry into their personal lives.

The national poll of 1,000 employees conducted by Louis Harris & Associates found that 69% oppose psychological exams that measure attitudes and social preferences, a form of testing that many employers use with job applicants.

Also widely opposed are tests that try to gauge how much employees smoke and drink when they are off duty--exams that some employers use in programs designed to encourage more healthful lifestyles and thereby hold down medical costs.

Still, 61% of the employees surveyed say their own employers respect their after-hours privacy “very well.” In addition, drug testing is strongly supported by workers.

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“The survey suggests that employees don’t want employers telling them what to do when they’re not working, particularly when it comes to lifestyle issues,” said John Tysse, vice president of the Labor Policy Assn., a Washington group representing major employers.

Tysse called the support for drug testing a “major exception” to that pattern, saying employees apparently agree with their bosses that the practice improves safety and productivity.

The objections to employers’ privacy practices were most prevalent among low-income and black workers. For instance, only 40% of African American respondents said their employers respect their off-the-job privacy well, compared to 61% for the entire group surveyed.

Among workers from households with annual incomes below $15,000, 25% expressed concern that their supervisors see their medical claims before the documents are submitted to the company’s insurer, compared to 16% for all respondents.

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“Millions of workers fear that employers are now collecting and using health and lifestyle information improperly,” Alan F. Westin, a Columbia University privacy specialist who worked on the survey, told a Washington news conference.

“It’s an important social problem,” said Robert Ellis Smith, a lawyer who publishes the newsletter Privacy Journal, citing the 39% of employees surveyed expressing some level of concern about their companies’ practices.

“There really aren’t many protections for workplace privacy, but the poll shows an expectation that it should be protected,” Smith said.

In particular, he said, the survey results show the need for laws to assure the confidentiality of medical records as part of any national health care reform package.

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One proposal, the Privacy for Consumers and Workers Act, is already under consideration in Congress, but it focuses mainly on the use of electronic surveillance.

Although privacy-rights advocates have recently focused on such high-tech concerns, the types of employer snooping objected to in the Harris survey continue to trigger fears.

In recent years, for instance, many employers--worried about issues ranging from workplace violence to workers’ compensation fraud--have used psychological tests to screen job applicants. Opponents of the tests charge they are unreliable and often unnecessarily intrusive.

The survey was commissioned by the Educational Film Center of Annandale, Va., which produced a related documentary titled “Off Limits: Your Health, Your Job, Your Privacy” to be shown next week on public television.

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The survey’s margin for error is plus or minus two to three percentage points.

Just Checking...

Nearly four in 10 U.S. workers worry that employers are failing to respect their after-hours privacy, according to a study conducted by Louis Harris & Associates for the Educational Film Center. Among the responses:

* How well does your employer respect your privacy off the job?

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Very well: 61%

Somewhat well: 29%

Not very well: 8%

Not well at all: 3%

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* How has your employer violated your privacy?

Suspected of collecting or abusing personal information: 11%

Collected inappropriate information about my health or lifestyle: 8%

Improperly disclosed medical information to co-workers: 4%

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Note: Responses may not total 100% due to rounding and “don’t know” answers; 1,000 employees in companies with 15 or more workers were polled. Margin of error: two to three percentage points.

Source: Educational Film Center

Dissenting Views

African American and low-income workers have the highest level of concern about privacy violations by employers.

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African All Americans employees Compared to all employees, African Americans are: Less likely to say their employer respects off-hours privacy “very well” 40% 61% More concerned that a supervisor will see their health claims 42 16 More likely to say an employer asked for inappropriate personal data 23 10 More likely to have had health data inappropriately disclosed 14 4

Compared to all employees, people in households with annual income of $15,000 or less are:

Above Below $15,000 $15,000 More likely to have had health data inappropriately disclosed 10% 4% More likely to have not filed a medical claim for fear of disclosure 10 3 More concerned that a supervisor will see their health claims 25 16

Note: 1,000 employees in companies with 15 or more workers were surveyed. Margin of error is two to three percentage points.

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Source: Educational Film Center.


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