RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Policy On Personal Phone Use at Work - 10/18/2019
We have a pretty exhaustive personnel policy on the use/limits of use of Library technology and pr...
Posted: Friday, October 18, 2019 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

We have a pretty exhaustive personnel policy on the use/limits of use of Library technology and property, both for compliant work-related purposes and for personal purposes.

What we do *not* have, and are wondering if we should, is a policy that speaks to the permitted (or restricted) uses of *personal* phones and similar devices while at work.

The question has come up because of supervisors needing to repeatedly remind staff to not use personal phones while on the public service desk, without having an explicit "policy" to fall back on.

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

On the surface, this is a simple issue: if people are using their cell phone for personal use on the job, a simple policy to stop the use should solve the problem, right?

Not these days.

As technology continues to transform the workplace (and the world), “cell phones away, please,” is not as easy as it once was.  People use their cell phones to monitor health, track their steps, and get emergency calls from kids at school.  Some may even use their cell phones to save their lives, serve as a witness to illegal activity, and exercise their right to free speech. 

Many of these functions depend on the proximity of the person to the phone (or the watch that connects them to it), and because of this, cell phones are becoming extensions of the people who own them.  So a policy to keep them stowed and away, or secured in a locker, can be met with resistance. 

Here are a few examples of how this “resistance” can play out on the job:

  • An employee who is the parent of a child with Type 1 Diabetes may want their cell phone on them to keep an eye on their child’s glucose level[1] while the child is at school;
  • An employee who being stalked by an ex may want the phone to record evidence to seek a protective order;
  • An employee trying to lose weight per a doctor’s orders may be using a supportive app and a Fitbit;
  • An employee may want to use their personal camera phone (“it’s better”) to take pictures for the library’s Instagram;
  • An employee may need to text their partner to confirm who is picking up the kids, making dinner, and mowing the lawn before it turns onto a meadow;
  • An employee may really love to play Candy Crush Saga® when things are slow at the reference desk.

As can be seen, many of the reasons to keep a cell phone on one’s person are compelling; other uses may not be.  And many of reasons/uses overlap with other library policies.

The goal, of course, is not to bar an employee from important connections and a tool for their well-being, but to make sure the use of personal electronics does not distract from the library’s professional environment and employee productivity (even on a slow day).  To achieve that, there are two broad solutions: 1) rely on a collection of policies to address the variety of purposes for personal cell phones while at work; or 2) create a catch-all policy. 

In a work environment where consistency for staff members is critical for professionalism and productivity, I prefer a combination of both.  What does that combination look like? 

It starts with policies for:

  • ADA accommodations
  • FMLA
  • Domestic violence victims’ accommodations
  • Workplace violence prevention
  • Communications/media
  • Use of technology
  • Confidentiality of library records and patron privacy
  • Employee conduct

…which should all allow for appropriate use of personal cell phones and electronic devices.  This doesn’t mean the policy has to mention cell phones specifically—just have enough flexibility to address them.

At the same time, assuming the above-listed policies harmonize with it, creating a specific “Policy on Use of Personal Cell Phones and Electronics,” as proposed by the member, can help employees and management navigate these issues in a rapidly changing world.

Here is an example of such a policy[2]:

[INSERT LIBRARY NAME] Policy on Personal Use of Cell Phones and Electronics

The mission of the [INSERT LIBRARY NAME] depends on employees maintaining a professional, productive environment. 

To maintain that environment, use of personal cell phones and electronics should only divert employees from work duties in the case of an emergency. 

To achieve this, cell phones and personal electronics should be stored in a carrier, purse, or pocket where the screen is not visible during work time, and watches synched with other electronics should not divert employees from work except during designated breaks in designated break areas. 

Sudden personal emergency needs that require use of a cell phone or other personal electronics should follow the established procedures for use of break time and personal time.

Use of cell phones and personal electronics for ADA accommodations, FMLA arrangements, personal emergency, and personal safety needs are exempted from this policy, and should be arranged on a case by case basis with a supervisor per the relevant policy. 

As with most HR policies, this one sounds simple, but can be complex to administer.  The need to be flexible and allow some cell phone use (especially ADA use, the basis of which may be confidential), can cause seeming inconsistency in enforcement.  To address this, employees must be sensitized to the fact that some people may depend on a personal devise for an authorized (and confidential) use, while at the same time be given the clear message that keeping in touch with social media and personal contacts during work time is not allowed.

As technology puts pressure on the norms of society, it is important to draw (and re-draw) reliable and clear boundaries…especially in the workplace.  So should a workplace have a policy on personal cell phones?  Done right, and with due consideration of the law, it can help.

Thanks for a timely question.



[1] There are electronic devices and apps that enable sharing of blood glucose levels at all times; it’s both cool, and terrifying, since if blood glucose is too low, a child can faint, and if too high, a child’s blood can become toxic. 

[2] Do not use stock language to create an employment policy without having a lawyer review the final product.  Union contracts, local laws, other policies, current handbook language, and work conditions can all impact what a catch-all employment policy can look like. 

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