Cell Phones: More Phones, More Problems

Last month we brought you guidance from Eric Schweffler of BLH&K on emerging issues with cell phones and the tax arena. Gauging from the response, it seems that cell phones are an area of increasing concern for employers.

Cell phones and PDA’s, not to mention beepers and iPods, have brought a whole new bundle of issues to the doorsteps of employers. Some of these issues include overtime pay, horribly annoying rings, driving safety, employees taking personal calls at work, loss of confidential information (due to cell phone cameras,) and inappropriate material in the workplace (if you think there’s any shortage of obscene or offensive cell phone screen backgrounds or ring tones, think again.)

Each of these issues is potentially a major problem, but my goal in this article is to hit a few high points for employers contending with a wireless workforce. Cell phones are actually at the intersection of a number of different policies, from harassment to confidentiality, so I’ll highlight a few of those below.

We’ve all heard the ringtones in the office, from the country-western ballads to the heavy-metal version of Swan Lake (really.) Any good cell phone policy should include requirements of quiet, unobtrusive ringtones, if they are allowed at all. Because of the increasingly frequent disruptions, some companies require that all cell phones be turned to silent or vibrate during the workday, while others require that personal cell phones simply remain off except for breaks and meal periods.

One primary consideration in creating your cell phone policy is safety. Statistics have consistently shown that people using cell phones perform tasks less safely, whether it’s driving or operating equipment. Many companies that require use of moving equipment, including construction, manufacturing, and others, have instituted policies requiring that personal cell phones remain in cars or lockers during work hours. Other companies limit use of cell phones while driving, and require people to pull over to make calls, or at least use hands-free devices.

As a reminder to everyone, hands-free devices are required by law for everyone using cell phones while driving as of 7/1/08, so all cell phone policies will need to include this at that time.

For companies with sensitive, confidential information, such as customer data, product designs, business plans, or anything else, it’s wise to include cell phones and other electronic cameras or video or sound recorders in your confidentiality policy. This type of technology presents a serious potential for information loss by employers, so it’s important to make sure that your policies are crafted to address this.

Aside from outgoing information, another primary concern with this technology is incoming material. Aside from ringtones, most cell phones now have customizable backgrounds and can store photos or videos. As one manager learned when opening an employee’s cell phone to admire it, even cell phone screen savers have the potential to violate harassment policies. (This particular manager wasn’t easily shocked, but said that in this case, she was shocked. The employee was told to ensure that anything she brings into the workplace is in alignment with the harassment policy, so the explicit video needed to be removed from her cell phone, since she had that out in her workspace.)

Harassment policies should make sure to address personal items in the workplace, such as cell phones, PDA’s, iPods, screen savers, incoming emails, and personal laptops used in the workplace.

Another rapidly growing area of concern for employers is text messaging. How many times have you walked over to an employee’s desk to find them silently texting away while you thought they were working? Some employers are more relaxed than others about this type of activity, but employers should recognize its potential (along with internet surfing) to be a time and productivity drain on employees. And because it’s silent, you may not even know it’s occurring. A well-drafted and even better-communicated policy is essential to make sure your employees aren’t using your work time to text.

The last cell phone issue we’ll look at in this article is the issue of overtime. For your exempt managers and executives, answering phone calls and emails from home is no issue, since they are expected to work the job, rather than the hours. For the non-exempt employee, though, who is checking their work email at home or answering or making cell phones calls outside of their normal work hours, overtime issues do arise. Since they are conducting business, you are required to pay those hours worked. However, if you have an employee working unauthorized overtime, you can approach that problem from a disciplinary standpoint.

Employers should make sure, though, that any hours worked (including on the phone from home or checking email remotely) are reflected on the timecards of non-exempt employees, even if the employee says they’re happy to take a few calls at home. If it were ever to come in from of the Department of Labor Standards Enforcement, if the employer has no records, the employee’s word on what they worked is often taken.

A well crafted, customized cell phone policy is now an essential in most businesses to address the growing issue of cell phones. Make sure it includes elements of when the phone can be on, can be answered, what the guidelines are for personal calls in general at work, appropriate material (including ringtones) on personal cell phones and PDA’s, confidentiality of work material, safety, and any other areas that need to be addressed to protect your business.

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