Aside from your wallet, car keys, makeup bag and occasional candy bar, you would do well not to keep anything in your handbag that would embarrass you if seen by your boss. Your employer might have a compelling interest in searching your purse, backpack, computer bag or shopping bag, and he could have the legal right to do so.
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to privacy and prohibition of unreasonable searches, but those protections don’t apply to private-sector companies. There, your bosses have the right -- to a certain extent -- to invade your privacy and search your belongings. If your job is in the private sector, you don’t have a constitutional right to be protected from searches at work. In some states, laws spell out privacy rights but in others, privacy issues are decided on a case-by-case basis by the courts, which must weigh the employers’ rights against those of the employees.
Employers have the right to prevent or investigate larceny, including theft of trade secrets and other confidential information. Your boss must also protect the company and employees from the danger of illegal items like weapons and drugs that could be smuggled into the workplace. Bag searches are customary in retail businesses to detect and prevent employee theft, but in other settings, random searches without a compelling reason violate the worker’s privacy. Such an urgent reason might be theft of money or a valuable item, or stealing a piece of classified information. In cases like these, a search of all employees would be justified.
Your employer could get into trouble by conducting searches that single out people who are protected by federal law because of their gender, age, disability, race or color, national origin or religion. Although some men now carry computer bags or “man purses,” handbags are most often carried by women, so a search that only includes women’s purses could be seen as discriminatory. If the boss wants to rummage around in your purse, he'd better ask the guys to open their briefcases, too.
Companies can protect themselves from complaints by establishing written policies concerning searches of desks, lockers, computers, email and bags. Once employees have been alerted through policies that they might be searched, they can no longer expect total privacy. Without such a policy in place, employees who have never been searched may come to expect that their privacy is protected. So, they feel they have a reason to complain if they are subjected to searches without being warned ahead of time.
Yes, your boss can peer into your purse but he can't touch your person. An employee has a cause for complaint if she is touched during a search. An employer can ask the worker to produce the evidence if he suspects a theft, but a physical pat-down is strictly prohibited. The boss also can't sneak a peek into your handbag behind your back. It's not a good idea to detain an employee who objects to a search; if the situation becomes threatening, it's safer to call authorities. If you, as an employee, believe your rights have been violated by a bag search, talk to a lawyer who has experience with your state’s privacy laws to learn your options.
As a long-time newspaper reporter and staff writer, Kay Bosworth covered real estate development and business for publications in northern New Jersey. Her extensive career included serving as editor of a business education magazine for the McGraw-Hill Book Company. The Kentucky native earned a BA from Transylvania University in Lexington.