Now that every worker has a phone glued to his or her hip, consider practical constraints your company should put on rampant usage

Yak, yak, yak. These days, people are talking on cell phones 24/7 – or so it seems. And if they’re not on the phone, they may be texting or sending e-mails. This can be a problem if your employees are overdoing their personal communications while they’re at work. So what’s an employer to do? Actually, you have a lot of options.

Here are some things to consider if your employees are using cell phones and other communication devices excessively for non-business matters.

Imposing limits

Your business could completely ban the use of cell phones and other devices in the workplace, but that might put a damper on employee morale. On balance, however, it’s probably better to impose some reasonable limits rather than ban cell phones completely.

You might, for example, tell employees they’re expected to use common sense and discretion in using cell phones. You can ask them to leave their personal phones in their purse or a desk drawer. Advise them to let personal calls go to voice mail, and to return those calls only during breaks.

Take extra precautions when employee cell phones contain cameras – as many of them do. Tell workers that they can take pictures on the job only if they get prior permission from a supervisor. And let them know that cameras are never allowed in private areas. You certainly want to avoid being sued for allowing an invasion of privacy. But you also may be concerned that photos could compromise your trade secrets or other sensitive information.

Workers have been known to claim sexual harassment when they’ve been photographed at work without their consent.

Safety is another major concern. Instruct employees that they are not to use cell phones while driving on company business. Tell them that they are required to pull off the road if they need to use a cell phone. Obviously, if your employee’s use of a cell phone is implicated in a serious accident, your company may have to pay for injuries to others and damage to their property.

Other digital devices

Employees can misuse cell phone cameras, as noted earlier. But other digital gadgets can also cause problems for your company. You should inform workers that they are not to save company information on their iPods, iPads, flash drives or other digital devices. In fact, you may want to completely ban the use of any devices that could be used for industrial espionage or to copy company files.

Adopt written policies

If your business has an employee handbook, use it to post your policies regarding cell phones and other electronic devices. If you haven’t developed an employee handbook yet, now may be a good time to do it. Typically, you’ll use the handbook to inform workers about a wide range of matters, such as holidays, sick leave, vacation pay, and sexual harassment prohibitions.

You can also use the handbook to remind employees that they’re employed at will – that you reserve the right to terminate the employment at any time with or without a good reason. (That said, except in extreme cases, firing an employee shouldn’t come as a surprise. If an employee isn’t performing to your expectations, it’s almost always best to let the employee know that his or her job is on the line if there’s no improvement.)

A key point in using an employee handbook is to have each employee acknowledge in writing that he or she has received a copy of it. If you’re adding a cell phone policy to an existing handbook, have employees acknowledge receipt of that policy.

Putting together an employee handbook – to cover cell phone usage and other workplace issues – may seem like a daunting task. It really isn’t. You can, of course, hire a consultant to help you, but these days, that’s unnecessary. There’s excellent software available to help you prepare a professional quality handbook on your own.


Fred S. Steingold practices law in Ann Arbor, Mich. He is the author of Legal Guide for Starting and Running a Small Business and The Employer’s Legal Handbook, pub­lished by Nolo.

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