Tech Talk: Smart Phones at Work

In 1973, Motorola developed the first cell phone. Nicknamed “the brick,” it weighed two pounds, offered half an hour of talk time per battery charge, and cost $3,995. As the years have passed, technology has advanced quickly, and after the first text message was sent on December 3, 1992, communication changed forever. Today the cell phone is a mini-computer, a shopping mall, a television, a GPS, and much more. Our employees rely on their smartphones for both personal and business use. Though the ability to process emails and work using smartphones has many benefits, there are also disadvantages and possible risks that employers should be aware of.

Many employees have their work email accounts attached to their smartphones, a great convenience if an employee needs to be available for an on-call shift or has a project that they need to monitor outside of regular business hours. However, according to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers must pay non-exempt employees for the time that they are viewing and responding to emails or any other work they are doing. It is wise for employers to create policies addressing the use of mobile phones after employees have clocked out at the end of the day. These policies should be similar in language to unauthorized overtime policies. If employees continue to perform off-the-clock work, then their managers will need to address it as a performance issue. The employer will need to pay employees for any of those hours worked even if their supervisor did not approve the time.

Privacy and confidentiality are additional factors for personal mobile phones at work. Employers should state expectations regarding the recording of conversations and photography. There are federal and state laws that limit what an employee can record. For example, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona are one-party consent states, meaning you can record a phone call or conversation so long as you are a party to the conversation. If an organization has proprietary information or if certain processes are going through patent approval, that information may need to be protected from photography and recording. An employer may need to address these concerns in their handbook or through a policy.

Employers need to be concerned about the loss of data and viruses when employees are using their smartphones to perform work. Most of our laptops have virus software and are encrypted when an employee logs in remotely; however, this is uncommon with employees’ smartphones, aka mini-computers. Employers should consider restricting employees from charging personal devices through the computer’s USB port, or from connecting to the company’s Wi-Fi network via personal devices. A virus on a smartphone could impact or destroy company records, data, and could have financial repercussions. Additionally, companies should review network logs regularly to determine the devices employees are using to access the network.

Many employers are creating a bring your own device (BYOD) policy. A BYOD policy should outline rules for employees that bring their own device into the workplace and access company data. The organization should consider how it will protect sensitive business data, especially when the employee leaves your company or if the device is lost or stolen. Because the employee owns the device, federal and state laws may limit the ability to erase the company data unless the organization obtains the employee’s written authorization to so. It is essential to reiterate to employees that the organization owns all business data. Employers should prohibit employees from sharing confidential, proprietary, or trade secret information. Employers should also require employees to keep their smartphones or devices password-protected. Finally, the policy should also address reimbursement for business-related expenses incurred when using personal devices for work-related purposes.

Smartphones have created access to a tremendous amount of information and data. While it is easy for an employee to pull out a cell phone to check email or look at a contract for services, the employer may want to consider how this behavior might impact the organization and to what extent. Employers must balance the positives and negatives aspects of smartphones in their organization and try to limit the amount of risk and exposure through explicit policies in the company handbook.