Most employees of private companies understand that they should not have an expectation of privacy on company-issued mobile devices or computers, and most companies have policies reminding employees of the company’s right to monitor communications on its systems. The U.S. Supreme Court has now made it clear in City of Ontario v. Quon, that regardless of the employee’s expectation of privacy, an employer’s search of an employee’s property at work is reasonable if the search is “justified at its inception” and “reasonable in scope.”  In Quon, a former SWAT team member for the City of Ontario, California sued the City for reviewing his unusually high number of personal communications on his work-issued pager, most of which were sexual in nature. Quon argued that his employer’s search violated his constitutional rights. In its first decision considering the privacy protections applied to text messages, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed.

 What does this mean for employers?

  • Update your policies to specifically address text messaging, the use of company-issued electronic devices, and the use of social networking sites both during work hours and while off-duty. The policy should specifically state that employees’ messaging and communications on electronic devices issued by the company are subject to monitoring, and employees have no expectation of privacy in the use of such devices.
  • Make sure that your practices are consistent with the policy. One of the questions in the Quon case was whether a supervisor overrode the policy by promising not to monitor the pager use. Supervisors and employees must be trained not to make statements or promises that contradict the written policy.