One recent afternoon, I had lunch with a friend. Throughout the meal, her BlackBerry rang and pinged as she fielded calls and e-mails from her office. I asked why she didn't just toss her phone into her purse and enjoy an hour away from the madness.
Her answer: "It's a company phone. I have to answer it."
Today, with the overwhelming presence of cell phones, this question emerges: If you take a company-issued cell phone or let your employer pay your bill, does he now own you?
As mobile phones become common work tools, the legal and practical boundaries around the devices are becoming a hot issue. Companies are grappling with policies, and a growing number of lawsuits by employers and employees are cropping up over concerns ranging from privacy and liability to expectations and etiquette.
Take a company phone, and you get IT support and your bill paid. But your boss can track you with CPS, read your text messages, ban you from talking or texting while driving, and require you to respond immediately to client calls and e-mails.
"You are giving them a big keyhole to look through," said William Amlong, a Fort Lauderdale labor attorney who represents employees. His advice: "Don't have any expectation of privacy."
Companies are using cell records to terminate workers. Amlong represents a security officer who was fired because, among other things, his company looked at his cell phone record and found he spent most of one work day on a personal call.
Another area of litigation concerns texts. A new Supreme Court case involves an employee who sued his employer for reading his text messages, which he sent and received using a company-owned mobile device. A final ruling is expected this summer.
Cases involving texting and driving while on company phones also are appearing in courts. Angelo Filippi, an employment lawyer with Kelley Kronenberg in Fort Lauderdale, said issues arising from mobile devices are an evolving area with few precedents to determine the law.
Meanwhile, online forums are full of queries and debates about business cell phone policies. Managers are asking whether to require employees to put cell phone numbers on business cards, whether to encourage employees to carry a business and personal phone, and what exactly is a company's liability if a worker is driving and talking or texting while working. A few companies explicitly forbid multitasking on cell phones while driving.
Some of the most heated workplace discussions involve accessibility and overtime. Are workers expected to be on call at all hours on their mobile devices and does that expectation increase if the company picks up the tab?
A police officer in Chicago says the city owes him overtime pay for the time he spent using his BlackBerry for work when he was off duty. The officer, who filed suit in August, seeks overtime for himself and all officers who used their BlackBerry devices while off duty.
For salaried workers, "off hours" use is a concern, too. Law firms were among the first businesses to give BlackBerrys to partners more than a decade ago. Now, most legal staff have devices attached to their hips.
"Lawyers don't feel they have the authority to push back," said Deborah Epstein Henry, a consultant to the legal profession. The quandary starts the first time a lawyer gets a non-emergency call from a client on the weekend. If he responds, the expectation is that he will do it again next time.
She said associates want guidelines but firms are reluctant to give them: "What firms really want to say is, 'Respond any day, any time. Sleep with your BlackBerry in your bed.' "
At the same time, personal cell phones are increasingly seen as a nuisance in the office. Most policies limit personal phone use rather than ban it.
"You really can't have a zero-tolerance policy," Filippi said. "It's more about guidelines around abusing the privilege."