As it generally has in the past, the United States Supreme Court has unanimously ruled on the side of employers in a recent case concerning employees’ use of employer-provided technological equipment.
Sexting Police Officers
In the case, two Ontario, CA police officers sued the Police Department after one officer’s department-supplied work pager useage exceeded the allowed limit month after month. A supervisor requested transcripts of text messages sent and received by the employees. The search on Sgt. Jeff Quon’s pager turned up over 400 personal text messages received and sent in one month alone—including sexually explicit messages. The officers claimed the search violated the Fourth Amendment.
Do Employees Have a Reasonable Expectation of Privacy?
The Supreme Court’s decision was based on whether or not the officers had a “reasonable expectation of privacy” concerning their text messages. The department’s formal policy which that employee communications would be monitored—and Quon signed a statement agreeing to the policy. However, Quon’s supervisors informed him that they would not audit texts as long as employees paid any over-limit fees imposed by the wireless service provider.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that this informal policy was enough to give the officers a reasonable expectation of privacy. But the Supreme Court reversed that ruling, saying that even if Quon had a reasonable expectation of privacy, the ruling itself was indeed reasonable.
How Does the Ruling Affect Employers and Employees?
This ruling indicates the law is on the employer’s side concerning employees’ use of employer-provided equipment. Legitimate company interests trump employees’ privacy interests.
Finding a balance between allowing reasonable personal use of company-issued laptops, cellphones, iPads, and computers and protecting a company’s reputation, business practices and trade secrets is tricky. There is a reason employers provide such equipment—it makes employees more available, and allows work to be done anywhere. Employers are advised to provide employees with detailed policies governing use of such equipment.