Nowadays, you shouldn’t anticipate the e-mail transmissions you write at work to stay private. Courts usually side with the employer when it comes to e-mail privacy. And lawfulness aside, many employers watch their workers’ e-mails. This article describes the laws, the reality, and how to stay out of danger.
Technology now makes it feasible for employers to keep track of nearly all workplace transmissions by any worker. And many employers take advantage of these tracking instruments to read employee e-mails. A 2007 survey performed by the American Management Association (AMA) showed that 43% of the responding businesses monitor worker e-mail, and 28% of them had fired an employee for misusing e-mail.
Why all the interest in what workers are writing? Part of it is a longing to evade legal liability. E-mail produces an electronic document, which employers may have to hand over if they’re sued. The same AMA study revealed that 15% of the businesses surveyed had faced a lawsuit activated by worker e-mail.
Your workplace probably does have an e-mail policy because, these days, nearly all workplaces do. In most circumstances, employers are legally permitted to monitor their workers’ use of company-owned computers and other supplies. Further, monitoring employee computers is extraordinarily effortless now. Monitoring technology is readily available to employers.
Many employers monitor their employees’ e-mails and other computer usages, such as browsing the internet, for various reasons. Given that this may feel intrusive to many workers, what are the employer’s reasons for observing workers’ computer use?
- Productivity: Your employer has an interest in what their paid employees are doing during work hours. They may observe what the worker is doing on their computer all day to decide whether anyone is doing non-work-related activities on their computer for considerable parts of the day.
- Security: While using the internet, workers may come across or download information into the workplace computer network that is potentially harmful.
- Liability/Lawsuits: Many employers are concerned that their workers’ computer usage could lead to potential penalties. The employer is likely worried about possibly being sued for the computer activity.
Are Employers Mandated to Reveal Their E-mail Policy to Their Employees?
Employers do normally let their workers know of an e-mail policy in place. This prevents an argument down the road that the worker did not comprehend what the policy was. Often these guidelines are brought up when an employee comes in for orientation to their new position.
Also, at this time, workers are often provided the Employee Handbook for their workplace, which should detail an e-mail policy if one is in place. Suppose there is an employee union within the workplace. In that case, the employees’ union agreement with the employer may express the details of the e-mail policy.
Even without a stated policy, many courts have held that employers may observe the usage of their own computers. It is always essential to review the local regulations, but do not be surprised if your state does not have any laws covering problems with workplace privacy.
What Precisely Can My Employer Monitor at Work, and How?
Depending on which state you live in, there may be state laws regarding privacy for employees in the workplace. However, these privacy regulations do not typically include an employee’s workspace and their computer terminal.
Everything in the office that is employer-owned, including computers, is subject to monitoring. The employer’s property may also be referred to as employer equipment. The employer invariably has access to its property, even if it is removed from the office (as with a company-owned laptop). Here are some often-used methods of computer monitoring:
- The computer software that permits employers to see what is on your screen or what is stored on the hard drive;
- E-mail usage and internet activity can also be observed.
- Your employer may be able to tell if you are away from your computer for a prolonged amount of time because computers go into “rest” mode when they are not used for a time; or
- Employers can even specify how many computer keys you push in a day to assess your productivity.
So My Employer Can Read My Work E-mail?
Yes, your workplace e-mail is especially powerless to employer monitoring. Not only does the employer own the computer itself and the e-mail system, but office e-mail systems are explicitly meant for work-related communications.
As such, they are seldom private. Even if you try to mark a message as “private” or “confidential,” your employer likely still has the privilege to look at the e-mail. Courts have typically upheld an employer’s right to observe their employees’ computer usage, including work e-mail and internet browsing.
Not only does the employer own the e-mails you send through their e-mail system, but they may also keep copies of them. For example, when you receive a message or send one, the e-mail system may retain a copy of the e-mail. Then, even if you delete the e-mail, a copy of it will remain for future examination.
What About a Personal E-mail Account I Use on My Work Computer?
In some circumstances, your employer may look at your personal e-mail. Not all courts have maintained their privilege to do this, and your state may have precise laws about this. It’s essential to be acquainted with the e-mail policy because it may state something about employer-owned equipment being used only for work-related objectives. Since employees sign their employee handbooks, they agree to the guidelines in the handbooks. This can make it more difficult to claim an invasion of their privacy later.
So, to be careful, try to avoid sending personal e-mails from your work computer. Even e-mails sent through your non-work, private e-mail account can still potentially be observed depending on the essence of your employer’s setup.
Is My E-mail Ever Private at Work?
If your employer hopes to review your e-mails, they can most likely do so. As described above, employers can keep copies of e-mails you have deleted, and they can still look at messages you have marked as “private.” The best action method is to avoid personal use of company computers and e-mail systems.
If you need to send personal correspondence, and you can access your personal cell phone during work hours, you can use that to send e-mails during the workday.
Staying Out of Trouble
How can you bypass issues with workplace e-mail? Treat your e-mail system at work as you should your business phone. Rigorously restrict your transmissions to work-related actions and don’t access your personal e-mail account on company equipment. Don’t send any transmissions that others might interpret as intolerant or aloof; even if your purpose was amusing or nonchalant, it wouldn’t look that way to others.
The golden rule of manners applies to e-mail as well: Do not send any transmission that you would be uneasy having your mother—or, in this circumstance, a coworker or your employer—read.
Do I Need an Attorney for Problems with Workplace Email Privacy?
Suppose you have already got an issue regarding your employer’s e-mail policy or have been disciplined or fired due to the policy. In that case, you may want to discuss the matter with an employment lawyer. A skilled workplace attorney can notify you of your privacy rights and if you have any legal recourse against your employer.