Design by Sara Bogovich; elements from Shutterstock

Design by Sara Bogovich; elements from Shutterstock

Dilemma of the Month: Professional Work on Your Personal Cell

Where to set boundaries and how to maintain them

Back Q&A Feb 3, 2016 By Suzanne Lucas

I work at a marketing company and often work long hours. Sometimes issues come up outside of the office, and I frequently find myself using my cellphone (and personal computer) for work — sometimes to field client calls, but often from my supervisors as well. I’ve tried to discuss with my boss the potential for some compensation, but the request was dismissed because my contract did not explicitly call for me to use it outside of work hours. However, both clients and my superiors continually contact me on my cellphone. I was even asked to put my cell number on my business card. Am I required to do this and if not, how can I respectfully set limitations?

Well, there are two questions here: What can they require and what should they require? The “can” is easy enough. If you’re an exempt employee, your boss can require you to be available 24-hours a day, seven days a week. If you’re non-exempt, your boss has to provide you with the necessary breaks and pay you for every hour worked, including after-hours calls to your cell and overtime when you put in more than eight hours a day (in California).

California law also requires that companies reimburse you when you use your personal phone for business. They are supposed to pay a “reasonable” amount, depending on usage. Since you are expected to be available after hours, don’t (presumably) have a company-issued phone, and they want you to put your cell phone number on your business cards and provide it to clients, it’s pretty easy to see that they must reimburse you.

Related: Dilemma of the Month: Unrealistic Performance Goals

You can go to your boss and say, “Hey, I just learned that California requires companies to reimburse employees who use their personal cell phones for business calls. Would you like me to submit an expense report or stop taking phone calls on my cell?” You could, of course, add a third option of having the company provide you with a company phone — but then you’ve either got to get permission to take personal calls on that or you’ve got to carry two phones, and that’s a pain.

However, I don’t think the reimbursement issue is the big problem. You’d have a cell phone anyway, right? I doubt that these work calls are making a huge dent in your budget. (If they are, you might want to switch to a plan with unlimited talk; there are lots of them out there.) This isn’t to say that they shouldn’t reimburse you — they should. It’s just to say that this (most likely) isn’t about the money.

What it is about is boundaries and you feeling used. You didn’t sign up to turn your entire life over to your job, but that is the situation in which you now find yourself. You don’t have clear boundaries between your work time and your free time. Your work/life balance is anything but balanced; the scale has tipped all the way to the work side. That’s the real problem. You can’t get away from work without also getting away from your friends and family. Sure, you don’t have to answer work-related calls, but your clients and supervisors know you have your phone and they know you can see their number come up, so … Ugh.

It’s time to set boundaries. If your supervisors are rational people, they’ll understand. If they are not, this will not be the only issue. Depending on your industry and level, you may be the one being irrational.

In some industries, this type of contact outside work hours is normal. No one thinks twice about calling you on your personal cell phone outside work hours because everyone is receiving calls on their personal cell phones outside work hours. Since you’re receiving calls from clients and coworkers alike, I suspect your industry is one where this is the norm.

This means it’s going to be more difficult to push back and set boundaries. Difficult, but not impossible. You can start by having a conversation with your boss. Are you expected to answer each phone call, or is it okay to send them to voicemail and respond the following day? Are clients told you’ll always be available? Where is that message coming from? Instead of answering the phone, can you send a quick text message saying, “I’m in the middle of something, can I call you tomorrow?” Most people won’t have a problem waiting.

If your boss doesn’t find it absolutely critical that you answer all calls immediately, just send them to voicemail and deal with them in the morning. If your boss says this is a requirement of the job, then evaluate if this is the job for you. Even in industries where late-night work is standard, it is generally possible to find a job without all-consuming hours. However, keep in mind that if most of your coworkers are answering calls at all hours, they are likely to be promoted more quickly.

Overall, handling this will depend on your industry and company norms, and your relationship with your boss — but it’s likely that you can get reimbursement and a less invasive cell phone policy.


Judith (not verified)February 5, 2016 - 7:29am

And this is why employee representation (aka unions) is valuable – to help employees negotiate working conditions with employers who believe that since they pay you, you are to do their bidding whenever and wherever. The reason an industry norm of unending availability developed likely has something to do with employees being job scared. Yes, there are those over-achievers and those who don’t have a life and so are willing to answer anyone at any time. In the beginning, however; there probably were a number of employees who answered because they felt intimidated and thought they might be fired if they didn’t allow themselves to be abused by their employers. Yes, this is abuse. There are very few issues which cannot wait to be resolved during usual business hours. I promise, the earth will not stop spinning because an email was sent at 8A instead of 8P, the night before. Now, if we talk deadlines, then the planning for those deadlines needs to be developed so, again, reasonableness is at play rather than frantic reaction. I’m curious why employees believe they should provide the material tools to do their job in today’s world when in the past this was not the case. We didn’t provide our own ledger paper or box of red pencils for the office even if we had a supply at home so why do we feel it is appropriate for an employer to tag onto our cell phone plan and blur the line between our work time and our “off” time?

Jason Cavness (not verified)February 5, 2016 - 8:10am

I would be interested in knowing the salary of the person. This is just my opinion. But if you are making a certain amount, the company may expect you to be on 24 hour call, to justify the salary they are paying.

Paul Larson (not verified)February 9, 2016 - 10:23pm

Well in every professional field we are facing these types of minor issues. Most probably professionals are always trying to handle these issues with potential skills and discussing with superiors; in every office there are some protocols and regulations which everyone should follow. But in case of any compensation it is completely depending upon performance and dedication towards the organization. If a person offers better dedication he or she will get good compensation and facilities.

Visitor (not verified)February 15, 2016 - 4:14am

Well i've been working as a sales representative for the last 10 years and having a great experience of using cell phone on my personal calls, so that's not a big issue for me.

cathy (not verified)November 1, 2016 - 1:55pm

i work part time, so only have a free cell phone. my coworker will get a text, then with in the hour i get mine. my boss gets upset and wants to me to get a contract phone or prepaid. i am on call if not on a job. my boss calls when needs me, but the cheep free cell phone from the government is not doing the job. but i can not afford a regular cell phone. I worked for others company's and they all reimbursed on cost. not this one. So can a boss require you to have a cell phone(contract/prepaid).

Visitor (not verified)December 21, 2016 - 2:42pm

Well... My problem is with the fact that they feel they can demand you to use YOUR personal property to their benefit. That is the issue. I don't like people telling me that I have to put my personal property at their disposal. If they want me to take calls outside of of work hours so badly, they need to provide a phone AND I am turning that sucker off at bedtime. No job is worth giving up your life; especially when they have no issue letting you go when so they see fit. Something's got to change. The laws of overtime for "exempt" employees need to be revised also. Some sectors in particular are repeating offenders that set horrendous salaries and suck the life out of people so the "top management" can enjoy a big bonus check at the end of the fiscal year. Disgusting!

Visitor (not verified)August 15, 2017 - 10:32am

Any thoughts on an employer ( I am a salon receptionist ) does not have a landline for their business and instead distributes your personal cell to vendors, prospects, and tenants without any reimbursement for the expense. I am an hourly employee that makes $18 an hour ( low for the bay area ) and am the only person that works for my location, which puts me on call ( doesnt help that everyone has my personal number)... Ive brought the cell phone issue up to my employer but here I am still using my phone as the only point of contact for their business.

Visitor (not verified)November 4, 2017 - 11:38pm

This is something somebody needs to sue over because politicians will never address this blatant abuse of employees' basic rights. The tone of most discussions usually makes it sound like exempt employees are the only ones dealing with this. It is so widespread I've seen even hourly employees making minimum wage being forced to use their personal phones for work and getting ZERO reimbursement for it. If they refuse they are out the door.
Mobile plans are not cheap and not everybody has unlimited text, data, etc. No company anywhere should FORCE you to use your own personal device that YOU pay for as a condition of employment. If a company wants you to be accessible they need to pay up or get you a work phone.

Visitor-Vanessa (not verified)November 10, 2017 - 9:43am

I work for a food production plant as QA and i have to use my peronal cell phone and email to take and mail pictures of the company products with out being compenated. We recently had to sign a paper from the company owner banning us from cell phone use even in the restroom less on break. Yet the QA department still have to use our cell phone to photo documents items events incidents and ingredients. Yesterday we had to give the company (QA department our personal email address to acess the pictures we send so we dont bottle down the company QA email account. Is this legal? My found has been taken, damage and wet several times and the company is not liable. When i was hired permanently and during my temporary stint there was no mention of my requirements. To use my cell or email account for Suzannas Kitchen business.

John White (not verified)April 17, 2018 - 2:26pm

The bigger issue is now companies are requiring to push various encryptions to the personal phone, After all it is being used for company business. Which now gives the employer the ability to remotely wipe the employees personal phone clean. The company I work for is in the process of fazing out paying us for the use of our phones but are still expecting us to use them for work and requiring their encryption to be placed on the phone. While I don't agree with this as it potentially ties me 24/7 to my employer and customers I do work for a "At will state" and even though i'm not an exempt employee I have no illusions that they will use it to rid anyone that does not comply. so to get around this I purchased a separate phone, only used for work. they can encrypt it all they want it has no personal information on it. I pull my usage report for that phone monthly and keep it for my tax return.

Visitor (not verified)July 19, 2018 - 8:46am

It's not about the phone or property. It's really about the employer's expectations and loss of personal life/space. The idea that exempt employees must work endless hours and do whatever it takes to accomplish the task is the result of evil corporate greed. Yes, this may have been appropriate and still is when/where the company really cares about the employees and promotes great balance and flexibility. However, in the most common work environment of today, where the employees are constantly inundated with ever increasing workloads, this principle should not apply because the employee cannot achieve the benefits of his/her supposedly flex and exempt status.
Exempt status should not be achieved at the expense of personal & family life!

Medical Visitor (not verified)November 12, 2018 - 10:58am

If you think your company using your CELL PHONE is bad---try working for a medical school! With NO even remote patient contact, they demand the use of our BODIES for their business model: get their vaccines or get fired!

Dee (not verified)September 3, 2020 - 7:04am

the issue i am having is my employer pays me $92 per month for my personal phone my bill is $100. I work two jobs. i am a marketer for a home care agency and I am also a realtor on the side. I was just told by my new boss that they want to force me to have a voicemail message on my personal phone that states my job contact info even though i have two businesses...can they force me to do this? any help would be greatly appreciated. they also made me take off the magnets on my car that have my realtor info on it and stated because they pay me mileage. can they do that too?