If this were a tale of an exhibitionist meeting a voyeur, it might have been a merry one. That, however, was not the case.

There is an extremely fine line between what might be considered voyeurism and employee surveillance as Cornerstone Properties learned. It also learned that a high price can be exacted if an employer installs a secret camera to monitor its employees.

Colleen Colwell, commercial manager, had been working for the company for more than seven years, when she learned a secret camera had been installed in the ceiling of her office almost a year earlier by her boss, Trent Krauel, Cornerstone’s vice-president in finance.

Shocked, she immediately had the camera removed. But Colwell felt psychologically violated and emotionally distraught, and sought medical attention. She was prescribed sedatives. In the next few weeks, she and Krauel had several meetings to discuss this.

He claimed the camera was installed to detect theft by maintenance staff. There had been several incidents of theft on the premises in the year prior to this secret camera installation, he said. He did not intend to spy on her, he said, but had been concerned that her office was used by the thieves to “review the loot.”

He assured her he trusted her, wanted her to remain in her position, and that she was not a suspect. To Colwell, these explanations had a tin ring.

To top it off, Krauel maintained his right to install the camera secretly in her office. He was sorry she was upset, but he owed her no apology.

Colwell was incredulous. No money was ever kept in her office and no theft had taken place there. Worse, since she was responsible for the maintenance staff, why had she never been told they were under suspicion? Krauel’s explanation exacerbated her sense of violation.

Blind to the impact on Colwell, Krauel asked her to stay on for six months, while Cornerstone tried to sell the mall. He said the company would “look after” her at the end of the six months.

Colwell could not bear the thought of continuing to work for Krauel, given how he had betrayed her sense of trust. In a last-ditch effort to resolve the situation, Colwell went to Anthony Graat, president of Cornerstone, with an offer to train her replacement in exchange for a letter of recommendation and a severance package. Graat did not respond.

Colwell resigned and sued both Cornerstone and Krauel for constructive dismissal.

Justice David Little found in favour of Colwell. He had little patience for Krauel, characterizing his explanations as “preposterous” and “unbelievable.”

He concluded that the secret installation of the camera, Krauel’s lack of apology or repentance, and his declaration he had a right to install the camera in Colwell’s private office without advising her, coupled with his preposterous explanation, the court said, made it impossible for Colwell to continue in her employment.

Justice Little wondered, “What was the real reason for installing the camera?” He could draw no conclusion.

The court sympathized with Colwell because she was left in a position of being unable to rely upon the honesty and trust-worthiness of her immediate supervisor. Krauel’s conduct amounted to more than “bad faith” and “unfair dealing,” and Colwell was justified in leaving this “poisoned environment.”

What right do employers have to spy on their employees?

  • Monitoring and surveillance are powerful tools against workplace theft. However, employers must have a reasonable apprehension of abuse by employees to justify their use.
  • Employers have the right to install cameras in the workplace. However, that right is limited by the obligation to exercise it in good faith and fair dealing.

Otherwise, spying on employees will open the door to the court’s meting out both financial sanction and an embarrassing public decision.