Why employees hit ‘record’ and what to watch out for

When it’s your word against your boss’, a recording of what happened is valuable ammunition of proof. Just ask Omarosa Manigault Newman. The former White House aide showed the world how easy it is to record your employer, releasing secret recordings of conversations she made in the Oval Office and with the president’s family. Although she has not revealed how she did it, only saying: “I’ll just leave that to your imagination,” Axios reported that she did it with her personal phone, which was “almost always on record mode.”

Seeing every work conversation as an opportunity for an audio recording could be seen as a way to drum up press for Newman’s book tour. But Newman said she did it to protect herself if she found herself in a “position where they’re questioning my credibility.”

And she is not alone in doing this to protect themselves. Wanting to catch our terrible, racist, sexist, no-good coworkers in the act by hitting record has crossed some of our minds. When I reached out to employees about why they had done it, I heard stories of employees wanting evidence against retaliatory bosses and colleagues saying racist language out loud. The word “proof” within these stories kept popping up, suggesting that getting it on tape is seen as a way to get an unfiltered version of someone’s story.

But is surveilling your coworkers worth it? Secret recordings give statements added weight. They have been used as the smoking gun in whistleblower cases and corruption charges. But they can, as one employee explained to Ladders, come with an unintended backlash.

What drives employees to record  

Jamie, an employee who worked in the medical testing device industry in New York, said she did it to catch colleagues in their own lies. ”Note-taking doesn’t capture everything, it doesn’t capture tone, and if someone knows you’re taking notes, they might be more guarded,” Jamie said. 

For her, it was a last resort after feeling targeted by her managers. She said she was called out for actions she was not responsible for in a performance review. “In the review, I was dinged for not doing work on products that hadn’t been produced while I was out on disability,” she said. Jamie said she was in a workplace environment where they would “tell me one thing and tell others other things,” she said. After being characterized as an “evil strong abrasive woman” by a colleague to human resources, Jamie said she saw recording as her only option to defend her reputation at a company she held a strong allegiance for and had worked at for more than a decade.

“Okay, if you are going to say that about me, I’m going to start recording things to prove to you I’m not doing this,” she said her thinking was. Ultimately though, Jamie was fired after she told her colleagues she was recording them with a palm pilot. The lesson? Once you go public with your secret knowledge, be prepared for backlash from your employer. Just because you have proof does not mean your version of events will get seen as reality. As Amanda Hess, a journalist who documented the rise of secret recordings in politics, put it, “The tape splashes in the public consciousness, but it does not necessarily permeate public beliefs. Like reality, it just becomes a new interpretive battleground.”

Reflecting upon her experience, Jamie noted one other option employees driven to record have: quitting. “Recording will make you feel better in the moment and make you feel like you have some sort of control, but the other way to get control is to get that resume out there and go find another job that makes yourself happier,” Jamie said. “Don’t stay in a situation that makes you unhappy, especially for 17 years, just because of money.” But when I asked if she would be prepared to record a workplace again if the situation became like the one she had, she said, “yeah.”

What to know before you record 

The convenience and ubiquity of technology make it easy for coworkers to discreetly record each other. Lisa Banks, an employment lawyer who specializes in whistleblower cases, says that she sees smartphones as a popular tool for recording. “Everyone walking around with an iPhone has a recording device in their pocket,” she said. 

Before you start taping your office, however, consider what you want to get out of this, Banks cautions. “An employee needs to think carefully whether he or she wants to run around the office tape recording, because absent the scenario where it’s arguably protected activity, it is not going to be particularly well received by management or your colleagues who do not want to be recorded.”

Banks recommended that employees first need to look up if they are in a one-party or two-party consent state to see if they can record someone without their knowledge. (Here is one general guide.) You should also look up if your employer has an official no-recording policy they could later use against you.  

Next, consider the consequences of coming forward. Because most employees are at-will, employees can get terminated for this behavior simply because an employer thinks “it’s a sneaky thing to do,” Banks said. Recording your workplace can irrevocably damage your reputation at a company. 

But if you clear these legal and emotional hurdles, success may await you on the other side. “Most employment cases are he said, she said,” Banks said. Having audio evidence of your boss’ retaliatory behavior can be the winning evidence your discrimination allegation needs. 

“A voice recording can be that smoking gun evidence that you want,” Banks said. “I’ve had cases where it was just that, where my client went into a meeting and her boss revealed all sorts of retaliatory animus against her.” The boss later denied it but the client had done her homework, recording in a one-party consent state and doing it in a workplace with no policy against it.

“The person initially denied saying anything like that at the meeting, but when the tape was played, she was proven to be a liar. That case was settled pretty quickly,” Banks said.