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Personal Use of Business Phones

DILEMMA

A municipality has an unwritten policy about using city phones for personal use. Local calls of an incidental nature are allowed as long as it does not interfere with work. Long distance calls are allowed with the expectation that the caller will reimburse the city for the calls. Every month the phone bill is passed around for employees to check off their calls and attach a check. This policy also covers cell phones the city has issued to employees.

Recently the city negotiated a less expense cell phone package deal that includes free nationwide long distance. As there is no longer a charge for long distance calls using the cell phones, here is nothing to reimburse. If this were a private company, there would be no concerns as the free calls would just be a benefit. But, as a city funded by tax payers there is an ethical question. The ability to make free long distance calls, with no way to reimburse the city could be considered an “unauthorized gift of public funds.” In addition, the employees who do not have cell phones have to pay for a similar personal call that those with the cell phones can make for free.

Would you mind sharing your thoughts on this? Thanks.

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DIAGNOSIS

There are two relevant issues, both centered in technology. First, technology has made it possible for long distance calls to be as inexpensive as local calls. This changes the picture on past practices that were built around a different assumption. Second, technology has enabled an employee to work beyond his or her time in the office. This actually puts more pressure on an individual who may be “on call” well beyond their usual time in the office.

For both of these reasons, We see no conflict at all in making the “free” long distance calls with the same level of discretion as the local calls. And since the employees with cell phones are “on call,” they are really paying for their ability to make the “free calls.” It seems likely that the benefits they gain from this are far outweighed by the benefits gained by the municipality having the employee on call.

We would recommend, however, that the municipality put this in writing rather than leaving it an “unwritten policy” subject to the usual concerns. The municipality should also have clear criteria about who gets a cell phone, both to encourage proper use, and to assure appropriate use of taxpayer resources.

Kenman Wong
Professor of Ethics, School of Business and Economics
Seattle Pacific University

If you have an ethical dilemma at your workplace,
email Ethics at Work (eaw@ethix.org).
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