How to Deal

Issues Arising From a Cell Phone Ban at Work

By Lily Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, September 17, 2009; 12:00 AM

Our employer has banned the use of cell phones at work. We are not allowed to use them but we are also not allowed to have them in our purse or pocket on vibrate. Immediate dismissal is the result of any infraction. Therefore, no emergency calls from your child's school or spouse or elderly parent. No calls regarding maintenance issues at home such as the appliance repair person, plumber, etc. Any calls should be directed to the land line at work but you cannot take personal calls here either. The boss said he felt like it was disrespectful to him to use a cell phone even during break periods.

Our workplace is part of a huge company (won't mention them - Forbes 500 listed though) and while corporate will let phones be used at other sites, our boss says no. Management would rather make one bold move across the board than single out those who break the rules for discipline. It is that way for everything - one makes a mistake, we all pay the price. We were told to police ourselves and not bother management with complaints. What can an employee do when they are treated like children by management who are too afraid to discipline those who cause problems out of fear of lawsuits or whatever? Why should everyone suffer when a few disobey? The new buzz is for employees to snitch on others or bully those who constantly make rule infractions but we can't push people to change -- isn't that the job of management to instill a sense of well being in the workplace and not create a hostile environment? Oh, by the way, the worker bees are in a union but management is not and worker bees were told by management that they could care less about the union nor our problems. Got to love this! Sorry to vent - but unjust work environments are not the way to keep and treat those who you cannot replace (due to the nature of the work).

Perhaps corporate would be more receptive to hearing about the management abuses at your site if their eyes were opened to the types of issues that may arise when their employees are cut off from contact with the outside world. Imagine the public relations fallout if some terrible accident befell the child of an employee because he or she is forbidden from taking a panicked call. How would the public ¿ not to mention the company's customers ¿ judge a management team that would not allow an employee to take a call for help from an elderly parent in distress? What about the employee who desperately needs to hear the results of a medical test? Should he or she be made to wait until the five o'clock whistle to find out whether a tumor is cancerous? It makes little sense to adopt such a draconian policy regarding cell phone use.

Even in a factory or call center environment, in which it is critical for safety and quality control reasons that employees not be interrupted by personal calls, employers generally permit their employees to keep cell phones in their pockets on vibrate so that they can respond to emergencies. A pattern of so-called emergency calls could be legitimate grounds for performance counseling. But it is wrongheaded for your boss to try to avoid addressing individual personnel issues by adopting a blanket prohibition on cell phone use at work.

What, then, can you do to address this problem? The union to which you belong is responsible for representing the interests of the "worker bees" in the face of unfair management practices. Assuming that you can articulate some violation of your collective bargaining agreement or unfair discipline, you and your coworkers have it within your power to file grievances to address your concerns regarding the cell phone rule and others. However, I am not naïve enough to think that you will necessarily achieve the results that you want through this medium. If your union has been co-opted by management or is otherwise ineffective, the grievance process might have little impact and you might suffer retaliation from management or the union for speaking out. Your recourse then would be to enforce your rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) by filing a charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Your charge could implicate the company's management for retaliating against you for seeking to modify your working conditions. You could also file a charge with the NLRB against your union for not faithfully representing your interests under the collective bargaining agreement. Further guidance regarding the filing of charges with the NLRB is available from Note that, if you are employed by a railroad or an airline, the NLRA does not apply.

Establishing negative incentives that encourage employees to turn on one another is not a sound alternative the hard work of managing people. It is dehumanizing and demoralizing to be subjected to such absolute rules under the guise of efficiency or fairness. If your management team is trying to avoid lawsuits, they should certainly apply the rules equally to all employees. But if the rules themselves are indefensible, then they will tend to negatively impact the most vulnerable among you, and this will generate the very lawsuits that management is purportedly trying to prevent.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.

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