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Unannounced Searches of Personal Property

Can we lawfully conduct unannounced searches for drugs and/or alcohol anywhere on organization property up to and including personal property such as purses and backpacks?

There are several matters to consider prior to conducting searches on employees and their work areas including: the legality of searches, the usefulness of searches, and the impact on employee morale.

The Fourth Amendment provides protection for all persons against unreasonable search and seizure of their persons, homes, and personal property. However, this doctrine doesn’t extend to private or non-government workplaces unless the employer has significant government contracts. Though some states have adopted privacy laws, very few, if any address employees’ privacy rights in the workplace. Still, it’s best to be aware of any applicable state law on the matter.

Even in the absence of state law, employers may face claims of invasion of privacy, defamation, and emotional distress. To limit the risk of such claims, employers must have a valid, firm, business-related reason for the search and a policy on searches.

The policy should include the purpose of the policy, which employees are subject to searches, what areas are subject to searches, and the consequences for refusing to submit to a search. It’s important to include any areas subject to searches that employees may have an expectation of privacy such as lockers, vehicles driven or parked on company property, and personal belongings. Often times, employees have an expectation of privacy based on the employer’s policies or past practices. So, when a search is conducted employees may feel offended that their privacy has been violated. Thus, ensuring a policy on searches is clearly written and thorough will not only ensure employees are aware of your intent to search their belongings as needed but it will prove valuable as a defense against a claim related to the search.

Though searches may be unannounced, it’s still best not to conduct random searches and to ask an employee’s permission before searching his/her belongings. If the employee refuses, then the consequences outlined in the policy should be reiterated and enforced.

When an employer has reasonable cause to believe an employee has brought drugs or alcohol to the workplace meeting with the employee and searching his/her work area and belongings is a suitable response and can be useful in deterring other employee’s from similar behavior. But, unwarranted, extensive, or constant searches can negatively affect morale and subsequently turnover and productivity. Employees want to feel that they are treated fairly and with respect. Ensuring employees are aware of the search policy and that such policy is carefully (not aggressively) applied goes a long way in maintaining employee morale.


This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016 at 8:59 pm and is filed under
Workplace Management.
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