Cell Phone Usage

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about cell phones:

Does an employer have the right to set policy that cell phones be turned in to the supervisor at the beginning of the work day? The employee can retrieve them during their break and at lunch but must turn them in again before returning to work. Is this legal?

Signed, Phone-less

Dear Phone-less:

There are no laws that apply to general work policies. Employers can’t violate the law themselves–so they can’t have policies that violate safety standards, equal employment opportunities, harassment protection and so forth. But the philosophy about workplace policies is that employees are not obligated to work in a place that has policies the employees find offensive. The government does not want to become involved with the varying employment issues of every business. Having said that, I can still understand why the policy about cellphones seems unfair to you.

The idea of turning over personal property, then regaining it, has a bad sound to it–even though there are some very logical thoughts behind the concept. The rest of this answer has something to do with the logic behind the policies, and includes some ideas for adjusting the policy somewhat. Regarding policies: There are many workplaces where specific items aren’t allowed in the work area, or where they have to be placed in lockers while employees are at work. This may be done for security purposes, for safety, to prevent theft from the store, to protect the work environment or protect other employees, or to ensure that employees are focused on work while they are being paid to work. Cellphones are one of the items regulated by many employers for those reasons.It is ironic that employees have, for decades, complained that phone calls interrupt their work. Almost every employee I know complains that they get too many emails. But, their frustration apparently only applies to BUSINESS phone calls and emails, not PERSONAL ones–they seem to welcome those! Most phones nowadays have many more functions than phone calling. One can get email, play games, send text messages, take photos and send them, keep a calendar and access the internet, all from the phone.

All of those functions take away from work time. And some of them can be major concerns at work. For example, I know of an employee who was recently disciplined for taking photos of women at work and sending them to his friends, along with text messages about them. In another case, an employee took photos of files and used them improperly. A judge was disciplined for playing games on his phone, instead of listening to the case. And I know of a lawyer who almost was jailed for having his phone disturb everyone in court with a jarring rendition of “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” used as a ring tone!Even if phones were only used as phones there could be problems. In one workplace, employees complained about a co-worker who seemed to be in the bathroom an unusual amount of time–requiring her fellow employees to take up the slack in her absence. The co-workers sneaked in to check and found the other employee sitting in a stall, clothing in place, casually chatting on the phone! In many workplaces employees have complained about the incessant phone sounds and loud conversations in the break room or cafeteria.I heard a speaker talking about being made to wait at a counter in a government office while an employee talked on the phone. He said she started the conversation to the caller by saying, “Hi. I can’t talk long, I have a customer. What’s up for tonight?”

I know a woman who is involved with a co-worker. They are worried about using company email, so they text message each other back and forth all day! She said one day she sent fifty messages. Their cubicles are right next to each other!So, what’s an employer to do? And what is an employee to do? Perhaps you could leave your phone locked in your car so you can retrieve it at lunch or on breaks. Maybe you can convince the person or section responsible for the policy to consider adapting it. They might say you can have the phone at your desk if it is not turned on during working hours. That way you can get messages at lunchtime and return them from an outside location so you don’t disturb others.

Workplaces all over are trying to figure out how to handle the cell phone situation. Sadly, as you know, there will always be a few employees who will misuse them. But, the last thing supervisors need added to their list of work is to be the Phone Police! That’s why policies such as the one your organization has, are developed. Best wishes as you and your company work together to find an equitable solution. Maybe you can volunteer to do some research and offer some options. Good luck!

Tina Lewis Rowe