“All in the name of cost-control” takes on new meaning, thanks to a recent ruling from the Supreme Court. It comes with cautions, though.
Last week the highest court in the land came down on the side of employers working to protect their bottom lines. And it all centered on those mobile tech devices you’d swear were surgically attached to employees’ hands.
Here are the specifics of this case and what it means for companies of all sizes and in all industries:
It’s a common scenario now: The employer in this case equipped some of its employees with pagers to stay in contact with co-workers. Folks could text on those pagers. Employees were given a character allowance for text messaging under the company telecom plan. Anything exceeding that number, and the company was charged overage fees.
As the employer here, a municipality, started noticing a growing number of overage fees it understandably questioned whether employees were using the devices for more than just business.
To find out – and get costs back in line – it requested and read transcripts of the employee text messages. Its suspicions were right. The company found many personal (and highly explicit) text messages had been sent from the pagers.
The employees sued their employer, claiming their employers violated their Fourth Amendment right to privacy.
After several rounds in lower courts, the case finally made it to the highest court in the land for a definitive answer. The ruling? Square on the side of employers.
The reason: Because the employer reasonably suspected that its people were breaking the rules and using their pagers for non-business activities, it was justified in requesting and reading those text message transcripts.
True, this ruling is great news for cost-conscious companies everywhere. But the high court made it clear this was a very narrow ruling, which means there are two major cautions:
- Have a clearly crafted and communicated policy. Your company needs to spell out what employees can and can’t do, on and off the clock, with company property. That includes cell phones, laptops, etc. The employer came out on top in this case because it acted based on the fact it suspected the rules were being broken. If the rules aren’t well defined, you could still wind up in legal trouble.
- Reel supervisors in. This ruling validates that companies can take steps to keep their costs down. But you don’t want supervisors thinking they’ve just been handed carte blanche to invade staffers’ privacy all in the name of controlling expenses. Overzealous managers (especially ones with compensation dollars tied to holding budgets down) could try to take this new development too far.
Cite: City of Ontario, California, et al. v. Quon et al.,U.S. Supreme Court, No. 08-1332, 6/17/10.