In Focus: Can Employers Ask Employees to Show Them Their Cellphones?


Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. February 27, 2017
In Focus: Can Employers Ask Employees to Show Them Their Cellphones?

Press Secretary Sean Spicer is trying to crack down on leaks coming from the White House, with the president's attorneys conducting random phone checks of White House staffers. Is that legal?

White House Lawyers Randomly Check Staff Phones

In an emergency meeting, White House staffers were told to put their phone on a table for a "phone check," to prove they had not had unauthorized correspondence with the media. They also were warned that using texting apps that automatically delete texts after they are sent violated the Presidential Records Act. (Politico)

Privacy in the Workplace

Invasion of privacy laws vary from state to state, but generally provide that an employer can't intentionally intrude on the private affairs of an employee if the intrusion would be "highly offensive to a reasonable person." Whether an employer may lawfully look at an employee's phone may depend on whether the phone was employer-provided or the employee's own phone, particularly if the employer tells workers they have no expectation of privacy regarding calls, e-mails or texts sent on a company phone and the employer reserves the right to monitor work phones. (SHRM Online)

Can the White House Search Staffers' Phones?

But even an employee's own phone might be searched if an employer has a reasonable cause for an investigation or an employer has a workplace policy that minimizes an employee's privacy expectation. (Bloomberg BNA)

[SHRM members-only platform: SHRM Connect]

Efforts to Stop Leaks Not Working

Spicer reviewed government-issued and personal cellphones. He also asked staff not to leak information about his efforts to crack down on leaks, efforts that were promptly leaked. (CNN)

More Checks to Come

Spicer reportedly cautioned that the initial search would be "recess" compared to what awaits staffers if the leakers aren't discovered. (Fox News

Was this article useful? SHRM offers thousands of tools, templates and other exclusive member benefits, including compliance updates, sample policies, HR expert advice, education discounts, a growing online member community and much more. Join/Renew Now and let SHRM help you work smarter.



Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Search Jobs

Earn a SHRM Talent Acquisition Specialty Credential.

Do you have what it takes to win the war for talent? Find out.

Do you have what it takes to win the war for talent? Find out.



Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect

HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.