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Friday, October 12, 2007

Oh Be Wise, What Can I Say More?

My question is two fold...

Can someone get fired for dating a coworker?

If an employer has GPS technology on company vehicles and the company policy is that company vehicles are for business use only, to what extent can the employer go if someone used the vehicle for "personal use?" Can they ask the employee where he/she was and/or what he/she was doing? Or, can the employer only state the policy and repremand said employee for breaking it. Do they have a right to know what the employee was doing when they were in the vehicle outside of business hours? Is the employee obligated to tell them if they are allowed to ask? It seems to me that even though they are in a company vehicle there is still the issue of privacy considering it was outside of business hours.

Thank you in advance for your help.

Answer to question 1: Yes. You can be fired for dating a co-worker. You can be fired for picking your nose. You can be fired because your boss decided that he doesn't like what you eat for lunch. You can be fired for cause or no cause at any time. (Provided you are an at-will employee, which I assume you are.) The only reasons you cannot be fired are those protected by law--race, gender, pregnancy, taking approved FMLA, retaliation for whistle blowing, etc. (This is not an exhaustive list, by the way. Your state may vary.)

Now, would I want to have a policy in place that forbids dating co-workers? No. But I'm guessing this isn't a generalized "I'm a new HR manager and I'm trying to determine a policy question." I'm guessing someone is dating a co-worker.

I, personally, would have a policy against managers dating subordinates, but leave people on equal footing or in non-related departments alone. That's just me. I don't know what your company policy is.

The reason I wouldn't have a strict no-dating policy is that it's impossible to enforce, so when you do enforce it you end up doing so selectively--albeit inadvertently selectively. Then if you happen to enforce it with someone who is a different race, gender or age than someone else who got away with it, you're in trouble.

Question 2: Privacy. You do not work for the government, therefore the Bill of Rights does not apply to your bosses. (And for the record, I know that privacy isn't mentioned in the Constitution. I would argue that no such Constitutional right exists outside the rights to no unreasonable search or seizure and your right not to house soldiers. Several Supreme Court Justices disagree with me and argue that it is part of the "penumbra" of rights. This, however, is not a Constitutional law blog--and for good reason, as I'm not a Constitutional Lawyer. I could be, though, if I just went to law school.) Privacy has it's limits and I'm not a privacy expert. Employers can ask what you were doing in their property, and they have every right to restrict activity in their property.

If one is foolish enough to drive a GPS enabled vehicle that is expressly reserved for business use to a non-business function, one gets what one deserves. Now, the Evil HR Lady is not so hard hearted that if you used it to whisk your dying mother to the emergency room that I would fire you. If, on the other hand, you used it to take yourself and your workplace honey to a bar, that's another story.

If your company has a specific policy against dating co-workers don't date your co-worker. (And another reason this is a bad policy, how do you define dating? Is going to a movie with a co-worker always a date? Does dating require some sort of physical relationship? These are questions I don't want to make a policy on--Bob, we saw you and Jill holding hands. That's okay under the rules, but if you so much as give her a peck on the check, you are both fired!)

If your company has a specific policy against using company vehicles for personal use, don't do it. Ride the bus. Buy a scooter. Stay home. Don't whine about intrusions into your personal life when you've broken the rules.


JKB said...

Of course the company can ask what you were doing in their vehicle inside or outside work hours. Of course, you can refuse to answer. All you have to do is be willing to quit or accept termination for cause. The question allows the company to make a judgement of whether the use, while against policy, was in any case reasonable enough warrant less than the maximum penalty. Your refusal to provide an explanation demonstrates that you do not wish to plead your case and would make any manager conclude the use was not for a reasonable cause, or worse the vehicle was used for illegal purposes.

Teri said...

The company can make any policy they want. By accepting the job, and continuing to hold the job, and accepting the vehicle, you are accepting the policy that accompanies it.

Even if they didn't have GPS, you are expected to adhere to the "no personal use" policy. The problem is not how they track compliance, but that you seem to think you have a right to ignore the policy.

If you want to argue that it's a dumb policy, argue after you have turned in your keys and gone to work for a company that has a policy that you like.

thomast said...

Great post. I think that the same principle of "how far does the company want to go?" I'd pose the question to the employee as, "Our GPS logs show that you went to X location at Y time. What was the business purpose of that trip?" Additional information about the trip could be requested as mitigating factors in determining consequences, and to determine to what extent exactly the company's trust was violated and its assets placed in jeopardy. There might be insurance implications, and if the vehicle is identified with the company (like a logo on it) you don't necessarily want anybody to see it in the parking lot of a strip club, say.

One minor nit-pick, which I'd normally skip, but since it comes in a nitpicky paragraph: the Bill of Rights most certainly applies to the bosses and the employee, just not in the context of the employment relationship.

class-factotum said...

The Bill of Rights does not apply to bosses and employees unless the boss is the government. The Bill of Rights defines what the government is allowed to do, not what private individuals/corporations can do. If you want to yell (in your privately-owned company) that the CEO is a big poopy-head, the government can't throw you in jail for that but the company can fire you. And it's not a violation of your free-speech rights.

If you want to say nasty things about the President, jack-booted thugs can't show up at your door but Slim-Fast can sure cancel your contract -- and they're not violating your free-speech rights.