Employment Law Update
August 24, 2016
The new smartphone app, Pokémon Go, has taken the world by storm. This increasingly popular free game uses the GPS feature and camera of the player’s smartphone to capture creatures called “Pokémon” who appear on the user’s screen as if the creature was actually in the same location as the user. Players must travel with their smartphones to find the different Pokémon creatures who may be residing in different areas based on the player’s GPS location. To catch the Pokémon, players launch a “Poke Ball” at the creature on their screen by using their finger to flick the ball toward the Pokémon.
With this game, of course, come issues for employers to consider, as employees spend more time glued to their smartphone rather than actually performing work. Pokémon Go is not the first, and will not be the last, widespread distraction for employees in the workplace. However, unlike March Madness and Cyber Monday, it may not be a temporary, seasonal distraction. So employers must decide what steps they may want to take to curb the use of Pokémon Go or other diversions in their workplace.
To avoid or minimize these distractions, one option is to issue a policy or update an existing policy regarding the use of smartphone, electronic devices, or electronic games during work hours. If an employer already has such a policy, it should or can be worded to apply to the use of Pokémon Go or other games. The policy should provide specific guidelines as to when it is appropriate, if at all, for employees to use their smartphones, tablets, or the Pokémon Go app during work hours. For example, the employer may allow employees to play the game during their lunch break or other approved work day breaks, but not while on the clock.
Another consideration for employers is injuries. Headlines surrounding the rise in popularity of the game have reflected injuries players have incurred as a result of not paying attention to their surroundings while searching for Pokémon creatures. Notably, when the app loads, it issues a warning to users: “Remember to be alert at all times. Stay aware of your surroundings.” Nevertheless, because of the addictive nature of the game, an employee may very well injure himself, herself, or others when attempting to catch Pokémon while walking around the office or even while driving or operating equipment. In such instances, employers may be looking at potential liability in terms of workers’ compensation claims and claims from third parties. Having written policies and procedures in place that govern safety in the workplace and when driving or operating equipment can be effective tools in addressing those issues.
Additionally, as with any third-party application, employers should take into consideration that employees who download and use Pokémon Go on their company-issued smartphones may open the door to potential malware and virus risks. There’s also a possibility that players could be posting photos from the app onto social media, unintentionally revealing confidential company information to the world. Under these circumstances, many employers ban the use of the app altogether, either adding Pokémon Go to their software blacklist or disabling the app from all company devices. In one notable example, the Pentagon banned the playing of Pokémon Go within Defense Department facilities because of concerns of potential foreign espionage and security risks from the application’s GPS monitoring. Likewise, a hospital in South Carolina has also banned playing the game within its premises because of patient safety and privacy concerns.
While it may seem that Pokémon Go is only creating problems for employers, there may be some benefits as well, particularly with regard to wellness initiatives. The game encourages its players to get up from their desks and walk around as they search for Pokémon in the real world. Employers could supplement the game by issuing pedometers or other fitness trackers to their employees and, within certain parameters, create a competition among employees to obtain the most steps after a certain amount of time. Furthermore, a recent poll by Forbes showed that many employees felt the smartphone game has improved office camaraderie, as many have used the app to bond with their coworkers or bosses and have played it with coworkers during lunch breaks.
Whether to deter or prohibit Pokémon Go or other similar distractions by employees depends, of course, on the employer and the specific working environment. Employers should carefully consider the potential liability and security risks involved in allowing employees to search for Pokémon creatures while on the clock. Banning use of the application altogether may be most beneficial to employers whose employees work with confidential material or who work in physically demanding jobs with high potential for injury. While each workplace may be different, in the end employers must carefully weigh the risks and benefits before allowing Pokémon Go in their workplace.