Can my employer require me to buy my own laptop for work?

By , J.D., UC Berkeley School of Law

Question: Are bring-your-own-device policies legal?

I work as a sales representative for a California company that provides in-house corporate trainings. My job includes a lot of travel to existing and potential clients, demonstrating our training products and services. The company used to provide us with laptops for work. Recently, though, they've decided to "let" us use our own laptops for work. But I don't own a laptop, and I don't think I should have to buy one just to do my job. Can they require me to provide my own work computer?

Answer

Using personal laptops, notebooks, and smart phones for work is a big trend these days. Called BYOD (an acronym for "bring your own device"), these policies are often intended as a benefit to employees. Back in the days when corporate technology was mostly BlackBerrys, and employees preferred iPhones, BYOD policies allowed employees to use their favored device without having to carry an entire electronics store on business trips.

As in many other areas of life, however, technological advances have definitely outstripped corporate controls in the area of BYOD. Many companies are starting to rethink these policies as they become aware of the many risks, including loss of corporate data and loss of privacy for employees.

Laptop Reimbursement

In the world of BYOD, employee lawsuits so far have focused on reimbursement for use of their personal devices. In a recent California case, the state's court of appeals found that an employer had to provide reasonable reimbursement to employees who used their own smart phones for work.

Even if an employee's plan provided for unlimited use, the employer had to pick up a reasonable share of the bill. Otherwise, the court found, the employer would be unfairly passing some of the costs of doing business on to the employee.

Your employer seems to be going even further by requiring employees to provide their own laptops. California law requires employers to reimburse employees for costs they incur as a direct consequence of doing their jobs.

Although California employers may require employees to provide their own "tools," this is allowed only in the case of hand tools traditionally used in a particular trade. Otherwise, employers must reimburse employees for all costs they have to expend in order to do their jobs, including the costs of necessary tools. You would certainly have a good argument that you should be reimbursed if you have to buy a laptop for work.

Hopefully, your situation won't come to this. Your employer may be assuming that all of its employees already have their own laptops or pads they can use for work. Tell your manager or HR representative that you don't have a laptop and that you don't want to buy one for work. Ask if you can keep using your corporate computer. Chances are good that your employer will see this as an easy solution to a problem that could create some legal exposure for the company.

BYOD Policies: Pros and Cons

Many employers are now instituting BYOD policies in their workplaces, but they're not without risks and drawbacks. Here are a few of the advantages and disadvantages to requiring employees to provide their own devices:

Pros

  • Cost savings. Not only do employers save the cost of providing the tablet, phone, or laptop, they'll also likely save on maintenance expenses and upgrades.
  • Increased employee satisfaction. Allowing employees to use their own devices can enhance job satisfaction and flexibility, as they can choose the devices they are most comfortable and familiar with.
  • Improved productivity. Employers might see increased productivity and efficiency due to employees' familiarity with the devices and software.

Cons

  • Security risks. Personal devices may not have the same level of security controls as company-owned devices, making it more challenging for employers to protect sensitive data.
  • Compatibility issues. With a wide range of device types, operating systems, and software versions, ensuring compatibility across various devices can be complex and may require additional technical support and resources.
  • Privacy concerns. BYOD raises privacy issues as employees' personal devices may contain sensitive information.

Whether you decide to institute a BYOD policy will depend on a number of factors, including your organization's size, your industry, and the security measures you're willing to put in place.

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