Your workplace likely does have an email policy, because, these days, almost all workplaces do. In most cases, employers are legally allowed to monitor their employees’ use of company-owned computers and other equipment. Additionally, monitoring employee computers is really easy now. Monitoring technology is easily available to employers.

Many employers monitor their employees’ emails and other computer usage, such as browsing of the internet, for various reasons. Given that this may feel invasive to many employees, what are the employer’s reasons for monitoring employee computer usage?

  • Productivity: your employer has an interest in what their paid employees are doing during work hours. They may monitor what the employee is doing on their computer all day to determine whether anyone is doing non-work-related activities on their computer for large portions of the day.
  • Security: employees may, while using the internet, come across or download information into the workplace computer network that is potentially harmful to it.
  • Liability/Lawsuits: many employers are concerned that their employees’ computer usage could lead to potential liabilities, and the employer possibly being sued for the computer activity.

Are Employers Required to Disclose Their Email Policy to Their Employees?

Employers do generally let their employees know of an email policy in place. This prevents an argument down the road that the employee did not understand what the policy was. Often these policies are brought up when an employee comes in for orientation to their new job.

Also at this time, employees are often given the Employee Handbook for their workplace, which should details an email policy if one is in place. If there is an employee union within the workplace, the employees’ union contract with the employer may state the details of the email policy.

Even in the absence of a stated policy, many courts have held that employers may monitor usage of their own computers. It is always important to check the local laws, but do not be surprised if your state does not have any laws covering issues with workplace privacy.

What Exactly 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 laws do not generally include an employee’s work space 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 always 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:

  • Computer software that allows employers to see what is on your screen or what is stored on the hard drive;
    • Email usage and internet activity can also be monitored.
  • Your employer may be able to tell if you are away from your computer for a lengthy amount of time because computers go into “rest” mode when they are not used for a time; and/or
  • Employers can even determine how many computer keys you push in a day, to evaluate your productivity.

So My Employer Can Read My Work Email?

Yes, your workplace email is particularly vulnerable to employer monitoring. Not only does the employer own the computer itself, as well as the email system, but office email systems are meant specifically for work-related communications.

As such, they are almost never private. Even if you attempt to mark a message as “private” or “confidential,” your employer likely still has the right to look at the email. Courts have generally upheld an employer’s right to monitor their employees’ computer usage, including work email and internet browsing.

Not only does the employer own the emails you send through their email system, they may keep copies of them. For instance, when you receive a message, or send one, the email system may keep a copy of the email. Then, even if you delete the email, a copy of it will remain for future review.

What About a Personal Email Account I Use on My Work computer?

In some cases, your employer may look at your personal email. Not all courts have upheld their right to do this, and your state may have specific laws about this. It’s important to be familiar with the email policy, because it may state something to the effect of employer-owned equipment being used only for work-related purposes. Since employees sign their employee handbooks, they agree to the policies in the handbooks. This can make it more difficult to later claim an invasion of their privacy.

So to be cautious, try to avoid sending personal emails from your work computer. Even emails that are sent through your non-work, private email account can still potentially be monitored depending on the nature of your employer’s setup.

So is My Email Ever Private at Work?

If your employer wishes to review your emails, they can most likely do so. As described above, employers can keeps copies of emails you have deleted, and they can still look at messages that you have marked as “private.” The best course of action is to avoid personal use of company computers and emails systems.

If you need to send personal correspondence, and you are allowed to access your personal cell phone during work hours, then you can use that to send emails during the work day.

Do I Need an Employment Lawyer for Issues with Workplace Email Privacy?

If you have already got an issue regarding your employer’s email policy, or have already been disciplined or fired due to the policy, then you may want to discuss the matter with an employment lawyer. A skilled employment attorney can notify you of your privacy rights and if you have any legal recourse against your employer.