The legality of searching workplace lockers depends on a number of factors, including your employer's workplace policies and the general expectation of privacy regarding your workplace locker. The most important distinction to make when assessing the question of workplace privacy is whether you work for a private-sector employer or a government agency. Government employees have a greater expectation of privacy than those employed in the private sector.
Government employees are protected by federal laws, or applicable state laws, guaranteeing protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. As a result, public sector employees have a limited expectation of privacy in their work lockers even though a work locker is typically considered to be the property of the government. If the government agency you work for has a written policy in place reserving its right to search workplace lockers, you will have a diminished expectation of privacy.
Private-sector employees do not have the same expectation of privacy as public employees, except in the nine states that have explicitly extended privacy considerations to private-sector employees. Those nine states are Alaska, California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Montana, South Carolina and Washington. As long as there is no employer policy in place to the contrary, even employees in non-protected states still have an expectation of privacy for the use of private offices, restrooms, showers and changing rooms, and for locked areas in control of the employee such as workplace lockers.
Key Factors and Examples
When determining whether or not there is an expectation of privacy for the search of the workplace locker of a private employee, courts will look at different factors. These factors include the need for searches due to legitimate business concerns such as missing employer property, whether or not locker searches are random, the scope of the search, and who purchased the lock used on the workplace locker. The legality of workplace locker searches varies depending on the circumstances. For example, in the court case K-Mart v. Trotti, the court found that a worker had a reasonable expectation of privacy when there was no workplace policy for inspecting lockers, and the employee was allowed to use her own lock without giving the combination to her employer.
In most cases, an employment policy stating that employees will be subject to unannounced searches of their workplace lockers will greatly diminish any expectation of privacy. Determining whether the search of a workplace locker is unreasonable is usually determined on a case by case basis. For example, take the case of American Postal Workers Union v. United States Postal Service. In this case, the court decided that postal workers did not have an expectation of privacy in their lockers where they signed a waiver stating that lockers would be subject to inspection at any time by authorized personnel and general employee manuals stated that all property could be searched under certain circumstances.
- Nolo: Right to Privacy at Work FAQ
- Workplace Fairness: Workplace Searches
- Society for Human Resource Management: Can My Employer Really Look at That?
- Texas Workforce Commission: Seaches at Work - Legal Issues to Consider
- Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers: Warrentless Workplace Seaches of Government Employees
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