Question:

I own a small business with seven employees. Each of our employees has a cell phone. Although I have asked my employees to keep their personal calls to a minimum, they continue to make and receive calls on our business line and their cell phones. How do employers deal with these issues?

Answer:

The use of cell phones in the workplace has increased dramatically in the past few years. Many employers find it helpful to adopt written policies to regulate telephone and cell phone use at work, in order to minimize work interruption and promote a more professional work environment.

There are at least three issues you may wish to consider in drafting and adopting a telephone use policy for your workplace.

  • Use of the telephone during work hours. Many employers adopt a policy regarding use of the telephone at work. Some policies define the telephone manners required by the specific employer. A telephone use policy should also include the employers’ restrictions relating to personal telephone calls. The policy may prohibit employees from making or receiving personal telephone calls except in an emergency, and require that personal calls be made during the employees’ meal or break period. Some employers have a more lenient policy, and simply request that employees keep their personal phone calls to a minimum.

The use of personal cell phones during work hours should also be addressed in the employer’s policy. An employer can properly prohibit the use of personal cell phones and may instruct employees to turn off their cellular phones when they get to work, and require that the cell phones remain off while the employee is on duty. This may be the most effective way to restrict the personal use of cell phones during work hours. If an employee violates the policy by leaving the cell phone on, or by making or receiving personal calls, the employee should be informed that the employee’s use of a personal cell phone violates company policy, and that violation of the policy may result in discipline. Because regular phone lines are available for the employee’s use during meal and break periods, there would be no reason that the employee would be required to use his/her cell phone. Alternatively, if the employer does not want to permit the employee to use company phone lines for personal calls during meal and break periods, the employer could authorize the employee to use his/her cell phone during the meal and break periods only.

  • Use of company provided cell phones. Many employers provide cell phones to employees to improve communication and productivity, especially for employees who are frequently working outside of the office. A practical policy would be to inform employees that the employer provides the cell phone for business related purposes, and that the company provided cell phone should be used only for work related calls. Many employers also impose limitations on an employee’s use of company provided cell phones while driving, especially on company business. Although there are conflicting reports on whether or not the use of cell phones increases traffic accidents, from the employer’s perspective, anything that requires the employee to take their attention away from safe driving should be prohibited while on company business. However, your policy should also recognize that employees might need to communicate while traveling, and permit drivers to use the phone when safely pulled off the road or stopped.
  • Use of camera phones in the workplace. The telecommunications industry predicts that half of all cellular phones will have photographic or videotape abilities by 2008. Inappropriate use of camera phones potentially expands an employer’s liability for harassment and invasion of privacy. Also, camera cell phones can be used to transmit and misappropriate business trade secrets and other confidential information. Although technology is being developed to disable the imaging capability of camera phones when the user enters a “wireless privacy zone,” until this technology is widely available, a policy that requires the user to turn off cell phones while at work may be the best option.

Employers are permitted to adopt policies to control the work environment, and may regulate what employees bring to the work place. A well-drafted, non-discriminatory policy regarding the use of telephones and cell phones will assist employers in providing a safe and productive work environment.

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