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It's Easier Than Ever To Record Conversations And That's Reshaping The Workplace


Secret recordings made in the workplace have been in the news lately. Former presidential adviser Omarosa Manigault Newman taped several conversations including one with White House chief of staff John Kelly...


JOHN KELLY: We've got to talk to you about leaving the White House.

CHANG: ...And another one with President Trump.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Nobody even told me about it.


TRUMP: Nobody - you know, they...

CHANG: A series of recordings also figure into accusations against Melvin Watt, the director of the Federal Housing Finance Administration. An FHFA employee taped Watt to support her claims of sexual harassment and retaliation. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Simone Grimes started recording Mel Watt in early 2016. She was told a pay raise she was promised required his approval. But every time she brought it up, he seemed to be interested in a quid pro quo. In November of that year, she says he insisted on meeting outside the office at his house. As she had previously, she recorded him on her cellphone.


MELVIN WATT: This is the safest place to do this - to have this conversation. It would be the safest place if it were going beyond this conversation. But I think you were concerned that I was luring you here for other reasons.

NOGUCHI: Grimes' allegations are now the subject of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint and a separate lawsuit filed this month. She says she has multiple recordings with various people she works with that she believes support her case.

SIMONE GRIMES: The best thing I did was to record people without their knowledge because they were much more frank and honest.

NOGUCHI: She did so, she says, on the advice of a friend. She says, without it, her claims might have been dismissed.

GRIMES: And I was fortunate that I was given the advice to record everything. Now, at first, I felt very guilty doing that.

NOGUCHI: But she felt she needed to. Katrina Patrick is a Houston employment attorney. She says undercover workplace recordings are commonplace.

KATRINA PATRICK: When I first started practicing 23 years ago, it was a rarity. Five years, you'd have about two or three cases where there were recordings. But today the question really is why didn't you record. You mean to tell me you have no recordings? If you are surprised you're being recorded, then you are extremely naive. It really is the way of the world.

NOGUCHI: Patrick says the law governing secret recordings is complex. Laws vary by state. Eleven states require both parties to consent for the recording to be legal. And there are federal rules, whistleblower protections as well as labor and free speech laws, that might apply. On top of that, some employers have policies prohibiting the practice. And Patrick says secret recordings get mixed reviews from judges and jurors.

PATRICK: If you like the employee, then you tend to give them a pass when they make a recording. But if you do not like the person, I've seen it come back to haunt that person because people tend to think that it's sneaky.

NOGUCHI: Besides influencing legal cases, recordings also have an impact on workplace culture, says Johnny Taylor Jr., CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management.

JOHNNY TAYLOR: It has changed the entire workplace dynamic.

NOGUCHI: Taylor says, for years, the mantra in HR has been to cultivate transparency and worker engagement.

TAYLOR: The struggle that we have now is if there is some concern that every word spoken is being recorded surreptitiously by an employee, then people are questioning whether or not it makes sense to be so open, so accessible, so employee-friendly.

NOGUCHI: He says one case brought to him recently involved a female executive giving a female protege some advice, including about how to dress. The protege secretly recorded that conversation, argued the executive was being sexist and brought a claim. In that case, the claim went nowhere but left the executive feeling embarrassed. Taylor says he's seen cases where peers and colleagues are recording one another.

TAYLOR: That can not be deemed a healthy culture. It just can't be by anyone's standard.

NOGUCHI: It's hard to cultivate trust, he says, when every word you say might later be used against you. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.