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Personal items found in an inherited desk

Q: I recently inherited an office from a contractor that worked for our company for several years. This contractor was just hired by our company into a senior role and has been assigned to work in a different location. When I moved into this office, we had problems with lost and misplaced keys for this desk and the office door. Our facilities manager finally hired a locksmith to open the desk and have new keys made for the desk and the office door. I found many (very) personal items in the desk. I am now embarrassed about having a locksmith open the desk. What do I do with these items?

A: Stumbling across a colleague’s personal effects can be an uncomfortable situation. However, based on the information that you have shared, I believe you have done nothing wrong. I think anyone taking over a private office would expect to receive a set of keys to the office and to the desk. And if the keys weren’t in good working order and security was a concern, having new keys made seems like a perfectly reasonable course of action.

You don’t share specifically what you uncovered (and I am thankful for that perhaps). However, if you have found family photos, a cell phone charger, a half-used bottle of hand sanitizer and a frequent shopper card, I wouldn’t be too concerned about boxing up the items and shipping them to your colleague. I do suspect, though, that you have uncovered other items that may not be the run of the mill items that are found in many other desks within your company. If you have found items that are against company policy, then you may need to take action (especially if there is a company policy in place that requests that you to do so). I would suggest involving your Human Resources Department to ensure that you are taking appropriate action. Especially if you have found an item or items that could be considered dangerous or against a company policy, you need to take action and report this information to HR. Some of the items that I believe clearly warrant a call to HR include: marijuana or other drug paraphernalia, a weapon and confidential company and/or client information that this employee should not have had. Let your HR team make the decision on how to proceed.

A lesson for all of us in offices. It is ok to have personal family photos in most workplaces. It is OK to keep gum in our desks. It is often ok to keep hand sanitizer in our desks. However, your desk is not your desk. It is your employer’s desk.

I contacted Jeffrey Dretler, Partner of the Labor and Employment Practice at Prince, Lobel, Glovsky and Tye LLP, to add share his perspective on your inquiry. Dretler adds:

Under Massachusetts law, employees may have a reasonable expectation of privacy with regard to their offices, desks, files, lockers, or briefcases. However, an employer may reduce the reasonable expectation of privacy by publishing written policies prohibiting or discouraging employees from storing personal material in these locations and warning employees in advance that these areas may be searched. One area that has garnered particular attention lately is whether an employee has a legitimate expectation of privacy in personal emails sent or received via a computer or handheld electronic device owned by the employer. Here, too, employers can reduce an employee’s expectation of privacy by publishing policies declaring that any email sent or received on a company-owned electronic device is company property and subject to search. That being said, employers should tread carefully when accessing employee communications that were clearly intended by the employee to remain private unless there is a legitimate business interest in doing so, such as investigating a claim of harassment or theft of company information.

In short, my recommendation to all employees -- leave sensitive, personal or inappropriate items at home. On a related note, remember your email is not your property. Be careful about what you forward to others. This can be traced.

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