Q. Can we open an employee’s personal things, like her locker, purse or desk drawer, if we suspect her of stealing? —A.G., Connecticut
A. Tort law governing breach of privacy varies widely from state to state. In addition to tort law, government employers must be mindful of the constitutional prohibition against unlawful searches and seizures. That said, courts would analyze such workplace inspections under the law on a case-by-case basis. Courts are much more likely to find a breach of privacy if an employer searches a purse than a desk drawer.
The best way to minimize your exposure to liability is to require employees to sign off on a “workplace inspections” policy that gives you the right to conduct inspections of desks, lockers, bags, vehicles in the parking lot, etc. Of course, in some circumstances involving employee theft, it’s prudent to call the police.