Can a privacy claim be carried too far?

Utility Man Grade II Jerry Parsons smelled like a brewery. Maintenance Supervisor Harry Cochran suspected him of drinking on the job, which was prohibited by a strict company rule. But Cochran couldn't nail him on smell alone. He had to have evidence.
By Raymond Dreyfack September 1, 1998

Utility Man Grade II Jerry Parsons smelled like a brewery. Maintenance Supervisor Harry Cochran suspected him of drinking on the job, which was prohibited by a strict company rule. But Cochran couldn’t nail him on smell alone. He had to have evidence. The supervisor decided to keep an eye on him.

Two hours after lunch break, Cochran saw Parsons turn into an aisle of the stockroom. He observed the worker taking a swig from what appeared to be a pint bottle of whiskey. Looking up, Parsons saw him, quickly capped the bottle, and shoved it under his sweater.

Hurrying down the aisle, Cochran asked him what he was doing.

“Uh, I’m on my way to the men’s room.”

The bottle wasn’t visible, but it certainly made a bulge in the sweater.

“What have you got under your sweater?”

“Nothing. Why?”

“I’d like to see for myself. Take off your sweater.”

“No way. It’s too cold around here. They should turn up heat.”

Cochran’s patience was running out. “I’ll turn up the heat all right if you don’t show me what’s under that sweater.”

“I don’t have to show you anything. It’s an invasion of privacy.”

“I’ll give you one more chance, Parsons. Either take off the sweater or take the consequences.”

The worker persisted in his refusal. He stomped off and out of the stockroom.

Question : Were Parsons’ privacy rights violated by Cochran’s insistence that he remove his sweater?

Babbitt’s verdict: “Not at all,” Plant Engineer Herb Babbitt told Cochran. “To say the least, you had probable cause to suspect him of drinking on the job. Parsons’ refusal to let you see for yourself can be based on one reason alone, his knowledge that he was guilty. Is this his first offense?”

“The first time he was caught.”

Babbitt nodded. “My suggestion is that you hit him with a 2-wk suspension and strong official warning.”