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Apply consistent policy on employee searches, and get written OK first

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in Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Elvis Stewart carried a duffel bag so he could change uniforms between working at a Taco Bell during the day and a McDonald's inside a Wal-Mart at night.

It's Wal-Mart policy to check employee bags, but Stewart objected to having his bag dumped and searched at the end of his shift. The store didn't check women's purses.

Stewart complained to management that he felt he was being singled out because he was black. In a subsequent meeting, a Wal-Mart assistant manager told Stewart that he wasn't being singled out, but he did admit that some employees were searched because they were black.

A jury refused to find Wal-Mart, which was not the employer in this case, guilty of violating Stewart's civil rights, but it did hit the company for invading his privacy and inflicting emotional distress. The Alaska Supreme Court let the ruling stand. (Wal-Mart Inc. v. Stewart, No. S-8259, S. Ct. Alaska, 1999)

Advice: If you have a policy of allowing searches, require that employees sign a "consent to search" form when hired. Any search policy should be applied neutrally and consistently, either search all employees or search only when there is probable cause of a crime.

The type of search policy depends on the nature of your business. If you search all employees, the policy needs to define clearly what articles will be searched. Be careful in using "random" searches, since they may appear to be motivated by discrimination. If using a probable cause standard, treat employees as you would a suspected shoplifter.

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