Many people are permanently attached to their cell phones and a tap away from their social media accounts, and this includes your employees. This poses unique challenges to dental practice owners when it comes to regulating employee behavior on the job. To complicate matters further, today’s smartphone is not just a cell phone—it’s a camera, a recording device, an Internet portal, and a data storage and transfer device, with USB and other interface capabilities.
But as a practice owner, this is a problem! After all, you’ve got standards of patient care to maintain, HIPAA’sconfidentiality and security requirements to uphold, and all sorts of other layers of responsibility. In addition to an increased level of risk, your practice has enhanced legal obligations to foresee threats and mitigate possible negative outcomes. So what’s your policy on employee cell phone use at your practice?
“Put all cell phones in the basket during work hours.” Not great HR
With all that on the line, it’s tempting to create policies like this one: “Employees must place all cell phones in the basket during work hours.” But there’s a problem with this type of approach. It’s not great human resource relations.
Policies like this one may sound like they’d be effective, but employees are adults. These policies tend not to be well received, because employees feel like they’re coming to work as an adult, but then are being treated like a child. I mean, would you want to put your cell phone “in the basket”? It’s a bit like having the teacher confiscate your toy robot.
What’s the wisest alternative?
From a human resource perspective, there’s no easy answer that fits all practices. An effective policy needs to include quite a few different elements pertaining to acceptable and non-acceptable cell phone usage. For instance:
• Cell phone use in front of patients is not acceptable.
• Cell phones may not be used on the clock, except at designated break times.
• Employees should never use cell phones at the front desk or in areas where patients are being treated.
• Cell phones may only be used in the break room/outside the practice/in a designated area.
Physically each office is different, so that’s a challenge. Many practices have no break room. Some have no break room but have one of the clinical rooms open where employees can go for privacy. Your rules many need adjustment within the boundaries of what makes sense, what keeps you HIPAA-compliant, and what is enforceable in your state.
The hard, scary facts
In addition to phone calls and texting, it is very unlikely that social media use will stop cold and your employees’ personal inbox will disappear at work just because the employer makes a rule. So while your policies should treat employees as the responsible adults most of them are, they should also be robust, clear, and enforceable in case the rules are broken.
Here are some points to consider:
1.Legality of your policies – It’s critical to ensure that your regulations and language do not violate federal, state, or local laws.
2. Up-to-date HIPAA training– While your HIPAA training program and compliance policies are separate issues, they interrelate with employee cell phone and social media policies. To start with, all employees must be fully trained in their HIPAA responsibilities, including the safeguarding of personal health information (PHI). They should know they cannot photograph, share, or post any patient details on social media or elsewhere without formal patient authorization, and cannot discuss patients with anyone who is not employed at the practice and who doesn’t have a need to know. All employees must understand how severe the consequences of HIPAA violations can be.
3. Regulating breaks can be tricky – Trying to control or limit employee behavior on breaks can be problematic. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) could develop an unhealthy interest in you if your policies impede employees’ abilities to organize or better their working conditions, and employees’ attempts to do so could theoretically include calls, texts, emails, or social media activity. If breaks are state-mandated, your state may also limit what you can require of (or forbid) your employees during their own time.
4. Know your responsibilities– If you allow smartphones, which include cameras, when off the clock, make sure you know what you can legally do if an employee takes a non-patient-related picture you don’t approve of. Unless your policy specifies that no pictures can be taken in clinical/working areas, and unless the employee has broken other rules, disciplining someone for an on-break photo could be risky. If an OSHA violation is photographed, then you have additional responsibilities. In such a situation, balance your desire to protect your practice's reputation (say, by deleting the photo) with a very careful understanding of the employee's legal rights and your obligations to correct the issue.
I can think of 50 other tricky situations you could find yourself in before I even stop for breath. These are tough calls, literally! To keep you safe, your cell phone policies need to be thorough without being overly restrictive, and enforceable when you need to discipline or terminate, without treating your employees as children. In other words, they need to be created by an expert, and it doesn’t hurt to have expert advice on hand when you need to enforce the policies in any difficult situation.
Speaking of all the trouble cell phones lead ro, I know of at least one instance where an employee intentionally baited the doctor as she was being fired, and recorded the ensuing screaming match with her phone in her shirt pocket.
I know, I know, I leave you wanting to say, “All phones go in the basket!” But, employees are adults. And your HR policies need to be strong enough to manage those adults.