Your Employees Use Their Own Cell Phones at Work. But You Still Need a Policy.

Your Employees Use Their Own Cell Phones at Work. But You Still Need a Policy.

Over the past two decades, cellular telephones have morphed from being primarily luxury items and accessories for business executives to a must-have item for just about anyone who ever leaves their house.  Many people, particularly those under 35 years of age, don’t even have landline phones.   And today’s smartphones serve as much more than communications devices – they are essential tools for finding important information, managing finances and payments, and an ever-expanding list of social and work-related uses.

Which brings us to the workplace angle of all this.  The Society for Human Resource management reports that 86 percent of employees own the mobile device they use on the job.  Gone are the days when most cell phones at work were the property of, and controlled by, the employer.

Technology has historically advanced more quickly than policy, and we can see how the use of employee-owned cell phones and other personal communications devices at work can become a headache for many companies.  Even the White House has faced this issue, recently ordering employees to surrender their personal phones so they could be checked for phone calls to journalists.

At the same time, we find among our clients that many encourage or allow personal mobile devices to be carried and used at work, on the assumption that to prohibit them wouldn’t do much to improve productivity and that it might even be a detriment to deny their “connectedness” to colleagues and friends.  For example, an employee with a smart phone would likely continue to work on company emails when he or she is not at their desk computer, and is otherwise always reachable. 

If this is the way your company approaches it, then just because they are not “company phones” doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a clear policy on the use of these devices in order to protect the integrity of the company’s information and to help the employees understand what their responsibilities are regarding their use.

There are legal limits, however.  And unfortunately, these vary from state to state.  But, in general, state laws provide that an employer can’t intentionally intrude on the private affairs of an employee if the intrusion would be “highly offensive to a reasonable person.”  Understanding the rules of your state can help you fine tune any HR policy, but using a fair and general approach is a good place to start.  However, navigating through the various state employee privacy laws can be overwhelming and many don’t specifically address cell phone or other employee-owned devices.  For example, the Pennsylvania employee privacy law does define employee wiretapping and surveillance rules, but does not mention personal cell phones.  Many web sites that discuss this issue say that generally one should consider what would be the employee’s reasonable expectation of privacy. 

Here are some basic elements of a “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) policy that employers should consider when addressing this issue in their employee handbooks. 

  • Employees should try to make personal cell calls only during break or lunch times. It is understood that situations arise where this is not possible, but in those cases personal phone calls should be kept to a minimum and as brief as possible.  Also, employees should speak quietly and forego discussions of personal or intimate issues until non-work hours.
  • Employees should not play games on the cell phone during work hours.
  • Personal cell phone use, even when permitted, must never include language that is obscene, discriminatory, offensive, prejudicial or defamatory in any way (such as jokes, slurs and/or inappropriate remarks regarding a person's race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, religion, color, age or disability.)
  • Employees should turn off or change the ringers to “mute” or “vibrate” during meetings, trainings or when meeting with clients or serving customers.
  • The use of phone-based cameras or recording apps should not be allowed. (This is important as it protects the privacy of other employees and protects the employer as well.)
  • Employees should never text when driving. Texting and driving is a violation of many states’ laws and is just plain dangerous.  If an employee drives full–time or only occasionally for work-related duties and needs to make or receive phone calls they should only use a hands-off Bluetooth device.  Even this can be a distraction, so the employer should encourage the employee to pull off the road before making any calls. 

If the employer is concerned about employees having company information on their personal phones they may want to include a policy about what the company will do regarding the device in the event of the employee’s termination. The company termination policy may be to wipe any device used by an employee.  If this is the case, the employee may need to consider the fact that they may lose personal pictures and other important private information.  If there is a clear BYOD policy explaining the monitoring and termination procedures, one could eliminate a lot of the frustration for both employee and employer.

As we know, the workplace is constantly in flux.  With the rapid development of new technology and desire to maintain a fair and effective work environment, HR policies need to adapt to these changes.  Creating a fair and effective BYOD policy that is updated and reviewed periodically can help your employees and employer work effectively into the future.

By Claudia St. John, President – Affinity HR Group, Inc.

Claudia St. John is president of Affinity HR Group, Inc., NBMDA’s affiliated human resources partner.  Affinity HR Group specializes in providing human resources assistance to associations such as NBMDA and their member companies.  To learn more, visit

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