When, Where and How to Conduct Employee Workplace Searches
Here are a few things to keep in mind if a search of employee space or property is ever needed.
Company searches of employee space and property are sometimes necessary to preserve safety, workplace confidentiality, and other important company policies. Employers often wonder what is fair game for a search if they suspect something is amiss, or if they want to be proactive about policy enforcement. The answer is, inevitably, “it depends.” Employers can better protect themselves from claims of violations of privacy with knowledge of a few factors for determining the proper scope of a search, as well as the correct procedures for carrying one out.
The Reasonableness Standard
Federal and Ohio laws give us some guiding principles on whether an investigation is legal in the first place: it is generally so if (1) there is a reasonable basis for suspicion that the particular employee has committed a breach of policy, or (2) no reasonable expectation of privacy in the item or location exists. In the employment context, there is no need for a warrant or probable cause to conduct a search.
Expectations of Privacy
A company typically has an unfettered interest in its property, so there is no expectation of privacy by the employee. Company items with no expectation of privacy might include lockers, desks, and company phones or vehicles. Unless your company space is clearly provided for the private use of the employee, such as a bathroom or changing room, an employee generally has few rights to privacy while on company premises.
However, an employee has an unqualified expectation of privacy in his or her own body. Cavity searches, undergarment searches, and, in most cases, pat-downs are off limits. If a situation is so delicate and the suspicion so heightened that you feel you need to perform a physical search of an employee do not do it. Your management staff should instead contact law enforcement.
Somewhere in the middle, an employee has a high but qualified expectation of privacy in his or her own personal belongings. This expectation may be weakened by the company’s workplace search policy if the policy identifies with specificity personal property that is subject to search. Remember, however, that a company workplace search policy must be tailored to the interests that the company seeks to protect (and at this point, we’re really talking about “reasonable suspicion,” which we delve into below).
Reasonableness of Investigation
If an investigation is legal, the determinative question for whether the search of any particular space is proper is whether reasonable suspicion exists that evidence of a policy violation or crime may be found there. Reasonableness is fact-sensitive and varies by the case, but the most important point is that the search itself should be tailored to its purpose and the nature of the suspected misconduct. In short: no fishing expeditions.
There are many factors that support the reasonableness of a search. Before conducting a search, try to make sure your search hits as many of the following factors as possible:
- whether the search was on, or of, company or personal property;
- whether the search was of a space or item in which the employee had a diminished expectation of privacy;
- whether there is credible evidence of misconduct;
- whether the search is for a limited purpose and the search scope is limited to that purpose;
- whether the employee is public or private (public employees have greater protection under the 4th Amendment; these constitutional protections have been extended to private employees in nine states, not including Ohio);
- whether the search was conducted by authorized personnel;
- whether the employee was notified of the search beforehand, and whether he or she acquiesced to it; and
- whether there was a clear written policy informing workers about workplace searches.
The search policies …
In most cases, a well-written workplace search policy can set employee expectations for the course of employment. Your policy should be drafted by your human resources department or an attorney with experience in HR and employment law. As to all policies, they are only as useful as your employees’ understanding of them. Before acting on a policy, you should make sure that your employee has knowledge of the policy, and ideally has signed a statement attesting that they have read and understood the policy.
A private company sets the rules, for the most part. Employees are employed subject to your search policies – so long as the policies are legal and the employees are apprised of them upon hiring and as changes are made. Remember though, the policies should be in service of your legitimate company interests – safety, confidentiality, etc. – and should be reasonable in all respects. If the policy is unreasonable, it won’t help you much down the road if and when a company receives a claim against it.
… And procedures
Once you have your policies in place, assemble a team to administer the policies. Designated Human Resources personnel should be put in charge of investigating claims and carrying out searches. It’s best practice to have multiple people perform searches, with at least one recording what the search uncovered. Recordkeeping helps avoid liability if something is later reported missing.
It’s also a good idea to be mindful of gender considerations for sensitive searches; a search should be conducted by at least one person of the same gender in case private or sensitive items must be searched.
Reports of searches should include the reason for the search, the personnel conducting the search, the date and time of the search, the subject matter of the search, what was found, which items were seized, whether the employee was present, and what instructions were given to the employee following the search. All of this should be delivered to the Human Resources or risk management director for evaluation.
Before developing a search plan, you should first verify available evidence of misconduct wherever possible. In developing the search protocol for any particular offense, consider the worker’s privacy expectations and map out your strategy accordingly. Always ask for written consent immediately before beginning; you should communicate the investigation process to the employee so that he or she is fully informed.
Finally, if your policies are well-drafted, feel confident acting accordingly, but never physically detain an employee or use physical or verbal threats or coercion to enable a search. If an employee refuses to cooperate, you can assert additional disciplinary action, but be careful not to cross a line that could lead to civil liability or criminal culpability.
Nick Weiss is an attorney at The Gertsburg Law Firm. An audit of your policies can help you avoid the pain of lawsuits. The Gertsburg Law Firm introduces CoverMySix, a one-stop legal audit for your business, led by award-winning litigators and in-house counsel. CM6 minimizes your exposure to lawsuits, investigations, disgruntled employees and customers, and all the damage that comes with them. Learn more about how to protect your business from lawsuits at covermysix.com.