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Can I record a conversation with my boss at my federal workplace without his consent?

Bureaupat channels the ghost of Nixon

By Bureaupat Jan 19 2011, 12:05 AM

Dear Bureaupat,

My boss has disciplined me for comments I allegedly made during meetings with him (I did not make the statements). My request for having a colleague attend these meetings was denied, so I would like to tape future meetings, without his consent, to protect myself.

The meetings are on site at a federal agency located in Maryland. My belief is that because this is federal property -- and federal police patrol our campus, not local police -- federal law would apply, not Maryland state law. Therefore, I would not need his consent.

Am I correct in presuming I can record these meetings without my boss's consent?


Dear Recording Artist,

In researching the answer to the question, Bureaupat fears having disturbed the ghost of Richard Nixon, whose spirit appears to be hovering above, urging Bureaupat to advise "go right ahead." Nixon, of course, was the Federal Government's most famous conversation-taper, and he justified his actions with the statement: "If the President does it, it's not illegal." Bureaupat, however, believes that this gentle reader is not the current President, whose usual workplace is in Washington, DC, and only occasionally holds meetings at Camp David, Maryland. Accordingly, different rules will therefore apply.

Notwithstanding President Nixon's precedent, all states, and the federal government, have laws about taping phone calls and in-person conversations.  (If you want to know what the laws are in your state, the Reporter's Committee on Freedom of the Press has published an invaluable state-by-state guide. Find it at www.rcfp.org/taping/index.html.) Maryland, as the gentle reader apparently knows, is one of twelve states in which it is illegal to tape record conversations without the permission of all the parties involved in the conversation.

However, Federal Government employees, under Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 119,  § 2511, are permitted to record work-related phone calls or conversations so long as they are one of the parties to the conversation -- unless the taping is being done "for the purpose of committing any criminal or tortious act in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States or any state."

The profession of lawyer is an ancient and honorable one, requiring considerable skill and training.  Bureaupat does not have that training, but knows enough to know that, if your surreptitious recording were ever to be used as evidence in a court of law, your dastardly supervisor would certainly claim you had made it for the purpose of committing an act you knew would be in violation of Maryland state laws. It would make for an interesting debate, at least for Bureaupat, but would surely cost the gentle reader a good deal of money to find someone to argue his or her side.  It will also distract your lawyer (and Bureaupat thinks you should get the advice of one) from arguing the real issue -- which is that you were unfairly disciplined.

Bureaupat instead suggests to the gentle reader that he or she first initiate a candid conversation with the boss, and question the boss about those lies. You might ask the boss if there was a misunderstanding, instead of making an accusation -- and remind the boss that he or she has a boss as well, whom you will not hesitate to contact.  (Another option, especially if your boss happens to be the President, would be your local HR office. Most government agencies have employee assistance programs that should be able to help.) 

Bureaupat also suggests getting as much evidence as possible, short of taping. Start asking for written or emailed instructions wherever possible -- and if the boss refuses, send him or her a quick email after your meetings recapping your important discussions.  Save drafts, previous versions or documents, and anything else you may have that show that you were performing your job properly, despite whatever your boss says. Get on the record with your objections, whatever happens as a result. If nothing else, it'll make you feel better -- and will be a lot cheaper than fighting the battle out in court.

If all else fails, Bureaupat suggests getting the heck out of Dodge. There are any number of federal agencies which conduct surveillance operation legally -- and if you get a job with one maybe one day you'll have the pleasure of being part of one against your old boss, which Bureaupat believes would be a simple case of poetic justice!


Yours in Gov,



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January 20, 2011 8:52 PM

Why do you have to continuously refer to yourself in the third person? This site would be way more credible if you just gave your advise straight up.

Seriously the questions you answer are great but the whole third person prevents me from referring this site to my coworkers

Anne Pratt
January 23, 2011 11:05 AM

re: taping conversations:  Why don't you simply ask your boss if you can tape?  It may be that s/he simply has a very bad memory for details (some people who are otherwise functional have challenges remembering the exact words of a conversation - especially if it was disagreeable) If they're sure they were right and did nothing incorrect, a tape recorder shouldn't scare them.  

You didn't mention union assistance.  Presumably there would be protection for employees in this situation in your collective agreement (sorry - am Canadian and may be more fortunate int his respect?)


Anne Pratt
January 23, 2011 11:07 AM

Oh, and...I love your Jane Austen narrative voice.  Makes me feel quite safe...

August 15, 2011 1:04 PM

The author says it is legal for "federal employees" but is it also legal for regular folks to record federal employees, provided the regular folk is participating in the recorded conversation?

March 19, 2012 7:34 PM

what should i do if my manager made a verbal threat to me and this is not her first time threatening me at a federal job and tries to antagonize me on a regular basis












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