HR Management & Compliance

Privacy: Can We Control or Ban Personal Items Displayed at Employee Workstations?

We’ve never had any rules about decorating personal workspaces and never had any problems. But recently, some issues have come up and I think we need a policy. For example, an employee reported that a valuable item was stolen from her desk while she was at a meeting. Another employee complained about a swimsuit calendar and suggestive cartoons posted in a co-worker’s cubicle. How do we set a policy that clarifies what employees may and may not do, or do you recommend just banning sexually suggestive personal items altogether? Are there any employee privacy issues we need to worry about? —Rosie R., HR Manager in Fresno


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Rosie’s question raises two different issues: 1) protecting personal items in the workplace; and 2) regulating the content of personal items. For the first issue you do not need a policy, but for the second one I recommend that you include this concern
in your antiharassment policy.

Protecting Personal Items in the Workplace

Let’s get the easy part out of the way—both public and private employees have the right to privacy under the California Constitution. Employers may diminish an employee’s expectation of privacy by having a policy that allows for reasonable searches of employee areas such as desks, workspaces, computers, etc. Although an employer can limit which items an employee can keep on or around his or her office or desk, in reality, most employers do not want to heavily monitor
employees’ personal items unless they suspect a policy is being violated.

As for thefts of belongings, I would simply send out a memo to your workforce reminding employees who bring personal items into the workplace that they do
so at their own risk. You may also want to include a statement noting that anyone found to have taken property not belonging to him or her, including coworkers’ personal property, can be disciplined, up to and including termination.

Regulating Visual Content

As a general matter, provocative pictures or photographs of people in swimsuits or wearing revealing clothing are inappropriate in the workplace. No one can deny that employees spend a majority of their waking life at work and usually enjoy displaying family or vacation photos or other personal items there. The key issue comes down to the content. For example, a manager has a photo on his credenza of a lovely sunset, a rippling ocean, and his wife standing in a bikini on the sand. Is that picture acceptable in the workplace? I
believe the reasonable person might say that the picture is too revealing and could envision an employee feeling uncomfortable having to look at that picture each time he or she enters the manager’s office. When in doubt, take the picture or cartoon down.

Antiharassment Policy Should Cover the Content of Personal Items

As for a policy that tells employees which personal items they can and cannot have in the workplace, you should already have one in place—your antiharassment policy. Therefore, a complete ban on personal items is overkill and unnecessary. The swimsuit pictures and inappropriate cartoons would be covered under this policy.

You must include in your antiharassment policy specific examples of prohibited conduct, according to California Government Code Section 12950(3). For example, in my policies, I break the prohibited conduct down into three areas: verbal, nonverbal, and physical. The nonverbal section is at issue here and includes the following language which gives examples of prohibited nonverbal conduct:

Nonverbal: Sexually suggestive or offensive objects, pictures, posters, photography, cartoons, drawings, and gestures; offensive materials sent via email or Internet; graphic commentaries; suggestive or insulting sounds; leering; and whistling.

If you customize your policy to include the areas of concern in your workplace, send it out yearly, and obtain an acknowledgement from each employee that he or she has received and read the policy, you will be notifying your workforce as to what is and is not acceptable in the workplace.

Training Is Also Key

Although a strong antiharassment policy is critical and legally required, I also encourage you to conduct harassment prevention training in your workplace to clearly articulate your company’s expectations, provide examples of unacceptable or acceptable workplace conduct, and reinforce your commitment to a harassment-free workplace.

Allison West, Esq., SPHR, is principal of Employment Practices Specialists, LLC, an employment law training and consulting firm in Pacifica.