April 22, 2010
Sexting on the job: Bad idea or none of your employer's business?
By now, you've probably heard about the California cop who sued his employer for violation of privacy after getting caught sexting on his employer-issued pager.
A quick bit of background for those new to the story: The Ontario, Calif. Police Department gave SWAT Sergeant Jeff Quon a pager to use on the job. Quon went hog wild using the pager to send sexy text messages to his wife and mistress -- both of whom also work for the city of Ontario.
[Photo courtesy of Flickr]
As the Associated Press reported, the Ontario PD maintains a "written policy warning employees they have no guarantee of privacy in the use of office computer and electronics equipment." As was their right to do, the department decided to audit its employees' text messages to make sure people weren't going overboard on the personal use of their pagers.
Here's where things get tricky: Somewhere along the way, the AP reported, a higher-up told police officers that "no one would look further if officers personally paid for charges above a monthly allowance." Quon paid for his overages and assumed this meant that the department would no longer be prying into his personal texts. When proved wrong, he sued.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco sided with Quon and, according to the AP, said that his "constitutional rights had been violated." But after the Supreme Court heard the case on Monday, reports said it looked like they'd be siding with the employer.
In addition, the AP reported, "The Obama administration is backing the city, arguing that the written policy, not any informal warning, is what matters."
I have to wonder if Quon and his mistress, who also sued the department for violation of privacy, along with a couple other officers, were simply suffering from a case of embarrassment and looking for someone to blame (say, if this fracas resulted in the outing of an affair).
Love it or hate it, the idea of employers snooping on the digital activities of employees using company-owned equipment is nothing new. Countless government and industry organizations have maintained such e-mail, computer, and land line policies for years. So why should texts on an employer-owned pager or mobile phone be any different?
Yes, there's the matter of employees in certain professions being expected to maintain 24/7 connectivity and their work bleeding into their personal time. But again, you wouldn't get racy with your sweetie on your office landline or corporate e-mail account and expect to maintain 100 percent privacy, would you?
Pundits are saying that the Supreme Court ruling could change the face of employee privacy, at least with regard to digital devices. I think it's just likely to reaffirm what those with common sense have long known: if you say or type it on an employer-owned piece of equipment or technology, you can't expect your employer not to hear or read it.
Readers, what do you think? Do employee privacy policies need to change to keep up with the always-connected ways of today's workforce? Or do you think on-call employees would be wise to use their own pager or phone if they want to sext their sweetheart on the job?
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
Paul Anderson helps professionals in transition find their desired employment.
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