Can our employer search our bags as we leave work?

Question:

I work for a big electronics store. In response to a significant increase in thefts, the store owner has announced that the security guards will begin searching employee bags and purses when we leave at the end of our shifts. Can they do this? Don't I have a right to privacy?

Answer:

There is a right to protection from unreasonable search and seizure. It's found in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. However, it protects us only from action by the government (generally, the police), not by private employers. The right to privacy is similar: It prohibits state and federal laws that intrude too deeply into personal areas and decisions. However, it doesn't limit what private employers can do.

A small number of states have taken a different approach, explicitly extending a right to privacy against the actions of private parties, including private employers. Even in states that haven't expanded the right to privacy in this way, court cases may protect employee privacy in some situations.

Courts looking at questions of employee privacy generally consider several things, including:

  • How strong is the employee's expectation of privacy?
  • How strong is the employer's reason for searching?
  • How intrusive is the search, given the basis for conducting it?

Based on the facts you've described, your employer has a good chance of winning this argument. Although you may want to keep the content of your purse or bag private, you don't have much of an expectation of privacy once your employer announces that it will start searching. The longer the lead time your employer provides, and the clearer the policy, the stronger your employer's case here.

It also sounds like your employer has a good reason for searching, given the theft problem.

The relative intrusion of the search depends, in part, on what the employer is looking for. For example, an employer searching for stolen TV sets would have a tough time justifying a search of small bags. However, if your employer is looking for smaller items that could comfortably fit in a purse or backpack, the search seems more reasonable.

If you have specific concerns about items you keep in your purse or bag, you might want to have a quick discussion with a lawyer. For example, if you take prescription medicine for a condition that you don't want your employer to know about, it might be worth consulting with a lawyer to find out what your state has to say about workplace searches and employee privacy.

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