Stow that smartphone, more employers are telling their workers

Curbing smartphone use at work

HR consultant Shirley Lind of Bukaty Companies explains why some firms need policies regulating the use of mobile devices among workers.
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HR consultant Shirley Lind of Bukaty Companies explains why some firms need policies regulating the use of mobile devices among workers.

Either power off your smartphone, store it in a workplace locker or leave it in your car.

Just don’t be fiddling with it on the job, more and more employers are saying.

At the Veterans Hospital in Kansas City, nurses and other medical support staff are asked to limit their cellphone use to breaks and lunchtime. At a major call center in Junction City, Kan., workers turn in their phones at a guard’s station near the entrance and retrieve them when leaving.

And workplace consultants such as the Leawood-based Bukaty Cos. are keeping very busy, thank you, helping employers draft policies laying down the law on mobile devices.

“Phones are a big deal,” said Bukaty senior vice president Shirley Lind. Even ringtones.

“What about ringers going off blaring ‘Bad to the Bone’ all day to the co-worker at the next desk?” she said. “That could cause little riots.”

On factory floors where safety is stressed, the millennial generation in particular — that which has grown up texting — needs to be urged that phone use can seriously disrupt the assembly line, Lind said. “Someone’s going to get hurt.”

Beyond plant-floor safety and the distraction factor, the reasons for employers stiffening restrictions on personal devices, in some cases even banning them, extend in myriad directions.

At hospitals and nursing homes, a phone camera invites potential violation of patient confidentiality laws. An employee who takes an innocent photo of a favorite patient, or a selfie with patients in the background, could put a facility at risk of being sued if that photo found its way to Facebook.

Call centers typically require employees to use the company phones and not their own to make sales, for monitoring purposes. Supervisors also are mindful that a quick snapshot of a screen showing credit card accounts or other financial data can lead to theft, not to mention a potentially devastating fine from the federal government for breaking privacy laws.

“It’s a security risk,” said Vince Fulgenzi, owner of Overland Park-based Vitec Inc., a consultant and systems integrator for call centers around the globe. “And by not having that smartphone distraction, it’s a productivity gain.”

As for the employees?

“They hate it,” he noted. “And that’s an issue, too. In the contact business, agent turnover can be a killer.”

Press 1 if you agree: You would hate it, too.

Isn’t it nice to have your own phone at work, if only to text your spouse you’ll be home late? And it’s critical, you might argue, if someone needs to reach you in an emergency.

Business consultant Vicki Krotzer said workplaces that restrict personal phone use need to list a number in the employee handbook or on websites where emergency calls can be placed. Employees then could be immediately contacted if such a call comes in — as long as workers’ relatives and friends know that number.

“All of these phone-use rules need to be spelled out,” said Krotzer of Maximum Business Consulting in York, Pa.

Still, employers don’t hold all the cards, said Mary Taves, officer in charge of the National Labor Relations Board office in Overland Park.

Last year, the agency found “unlawfully overbroad” a Las Vegas casino’s ban on camera phones as codified in the employee handbook. The board ruled that workers had a right to record unsafe working conditions or discussions with supervisors about the terms of employment.

“Or maybe an employee says, ‘That machine is running too fast,’ and takes a video with a phone. Should that be allowed?” Taves said. “All of these cases would rise and fall on their own facts.”

The dilemma for companies employing security guards is that cellphones are needed to make 911 calls wherever the guard spots trouble. But in the tedious, often boring task of working a guard’s station, it’s tempting for eyes to drift away from TV monitors and lock onto game apps or social media.

“We don’t want them looking down at their phones all the time instead of looking out and observing,” said Jeff Harper, operations manager at the security provider Clarence M. Kelley and Associates in Shawnee.

At least one employee was caught logging onto Facebook after checking into work. Detecting that was easy; the employee’s post was public.

With inappropriate phone use, “we’d start with a verbal warning, then a written warning, suspension and finally termination,” Harper said. “We haven’t had to go the whole route. They get the message pretty quickly.”

Even just a few years back, companies were not so eager to stuff their handbooks with point-by-point policies on personal phone use, said Baskaran Ambalavanan, a member of a technology panel for the Society for Human Resource Management.

“Now it’s very serious,” he said. The absence of explicit do’s and don’ts “can open up a Pandora’s box.”

Rick Montgomery: 816-234-4410, @rmontgomery_r