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Kates Nussman Rapone Ellis Farhi, LLP

Controlling Technology in a Changing Workplace

It has become commonplace for employers to create employee handbooks with guidelines for workers to understand their work environments and jobs. One of the most important parts of these handbooks is how they address new technology-i.e. cell phone and internet use policy. In today's technology-dependent workplace, employers face the challenge of clearly defining this. These tools create a fine line between distraction and benefit, usually falling somewhere between nuisance and asset. For example, every text message is an opportunity to start a conversation unrelated to work, and yet a text message is likely the fastest way to communicate with a co-worker. Today's employer must address these issues and create a cell phone and Internet policy to benefit the workplace as a whole and protect your business.

A workplace can be severely disrupted by the use of a cell phone. Each unanswered ringtone or high-volume vibration threatens the peace of the work environment. Creating a cell phone policy should encourage cell phone etiquette that allows for productivity. No phone use during meetings, no text messages except on breaks, and speaking softly during phone calls can all contribute to this.

Similarly, web surfing can also limit an employee's productivity. The Internet is a valuable resource for employees, but represents a world of distraction. An employer can limit this behavior by limiting access to specific types of websites, such as social networking sites, a leading distraction among employees. Employers can also direct the use of breaks only for this activity.

Having a clear cell phone and Internet policy is crucial from a legal aspect. An employee may be concerned with the privacy of his text messages and browsing history. The law measures privacy in the workplace based on the employee's "reasonable expectation of privacy." This expectation, though, is different at every workplace and is determined by a company's policies. For example, many workplaces offer a stipend for the text messages or web surfing on a cell phone related to work. This means that an employee will have a lower expectation of privacy related to his texts and web history on his cell phone because he expects that his employer may comb through these items. These policies also overlap with anti-fraternization policies. One of the reasons that many work places have cell phone policies is to curb the liability for sexual or other forms of harassment among coworkers. By limiting the interaction and establishing that it may be subject to review and discipline can limit potential liability for employers by this conduct.

Every modern workplace must address these technological concerns, but also should embrace the possibilities they can bring to business.

With assistance from Angela Yu, Rutgers School of Law & Rutgers Business School.

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