Inappropriate texting on company equipment a privacy issue - or a policy issue?

Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear arguments in a case involving sexually explicit text messages sent by an employee using employer-provided equipment. After an employee of the Ontario, CA, SWAT unit was warned repeatedly for exceeding the number of texts sent per month, his employers reviewed the content of the texts, setting off a whole privacy debate. The court is to determine whether the employer violated privacy rights by reviewing the messages.

My knee-jerk reaction? Privacy shmivacy. When it comes to privacy vs. policy issues where employees don’t follow the rules, it’s hard to comprehend a reasonable defense.

“But judge, I didn’t understand the privacy policy.”

That’s the only possible explanation, in my opinion. As dim-witted as that may sound, it puts the onus completely on the corporation to defend itself. As HR specialists, it becomes your burden to first, create a comprehensive electronic usage policy that covers all the “what ifs” and then, to ensure every employee has reviewed and understood the policy. It only takes a few employees saying the rules and regulations were never explained to them, or that they didn’t understand what was explained, to create a leak in your airtight policy.

As unbelievable as this kind of court case may sound (the employee blatantly used a company phone to send racy messages!), it further demonstrates the importance of creating a thorough privacy policy review process that engages every employee. In the case of the Ontario SWAT unit, their policy allowed for a certain number of texts per month per employee. If employees exceeded the limit, it was their responsibility to pay for the overage amount. That’s a good policy and one that every officer understood. The issue arose when one officer repeatedly violated the limit policy, prompting his manager to audit the messages for personal use.

What was the purpose of the excessive texts and were they a detriment to the officer’s productivity on company time? Which begs another question: How detailed should your privacy policies be? Enough to cover all the bases. The Ontario SWAT unit was very detailed in their policy in some areas, but lacking in others. If the policy had clearly stated that excessive abuse of the monthly limits would lead to a review of the message content, employees would have been aware that their activities could lead to further scrutiny.

While this case seems cut and dried, it isn’t because it forces HR managers from coast to coast to review, revise and reinforce their privacy policy standards. At the very least, you may want to look at your privacy policies when it comes to corporate-supplied equipment to ensure you have an iron-clad and understandable position.

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