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Can we search employees’ work areas while investigating a string of thefts?

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

Q. I work for an Internet company with about 50 other employees. Recently, there have been several complaints around the office about theft of personal property. The problem has become a distraction in the workplace and I was asked to investigate the incidents.

Our employee manual does not have any policies prohibiting theft of personal property, and there are no notices that warn employees that their work areas may be searched. What right does my company have to search a suspected employee’s work space and personal items to try to locate property not owned or related to my company?

A. If an employer has reasonable grounds for suspecting that a search will turn up evidence that an employee is guilty of work-related misconduct, a search of the employee’s workplace (including office, desk and file cabinets) is justified.

Personal items, however, are not subject to search simply because they are located in the workplace.

An employee’s expectations of privacy in the workplace may be reduced by actual office practices or legitimate regulation. Employers should give advance notice that offices and desks can be searched, and provide internal policies for investigating and punishing workplace theft.

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