There are few opportunities for absolute personal privacy in the workplace.
The bathroom, maybe. Even then, though, there’s that obligatory chit chat at the sink.
You can escape to your car during breaks and lunch, but then you’re not really in the workplace any more.
One place that definitely is not private is your work computer. In fact, your employer can monitor email sent from a company account via company equipment. And even personal emails, hosted by a third-party, aren’t necessarily private when sent via company equipment and infrastructure.
It really depends on the case.
In Sitton v. Print Direction, Inc., for instance, the court ruled that a manager did not break the law when he read an employee’s personal email on the employee’s personal computer after realizing that the employee was doing side work for a competing business. While it was the employees personal laptop, the court concluded, the incriminating email was sent using the company’s network.
Employers typically don’t monitor email in hopes of uncovering juicy gossip about your personal life. Here are three major reasons they do:
1. Quality Control (Especially for New Hires)
Nicole Wright, CEO and Founder at Food Body M.E. told us she regularly monitors incoming messages.
“I monitor ‘to’ messages for customer quality control and also check in on the integrity of the new hire until trust and work ethic has been established,” Wright says.
Not only that, but she finds that monitoring incoming messages also helps her in managing her staff. For instance, if a team member was complaining internally, “I’d figure out a way to approach them based on information that I would have seen myself and ask them if they’d like to share,” she says.
Celeste O’Keefe, CEO of DANCEL Multimedia, a litigation support services firm, would agree and says monitoring email “allow employers to view where employees are struggling and tailor training materials or sessions to better address those issues, hence increasing productivity.”
For Wright, monitoring emails has helped her prevent disgruntled employees and nip issues in the bud.
2. ‘X-Rated Stuff, Weapons, Etc.’
Many IT departments have implemented software that flags inappropriate keywords.
“These are typically X-rated stuff, weapons, racism, sexism, etc.,” says Tom Armour, co-founder of High Return SelectionT.
O’Keefe says she uses the employee monitoring software SpectorSoft to track emails.
“It stores historical information on what employees have sent and received via email,” she says.
If you’re working at a company that really needs to guard and protect their information, IT probably monitors what you download and upload as well, Armour says.
This helps your company protect itself against hacking, viruses, theft of IP or designs and prevent company email being used for inappropriate or illegal uses.
For many employers, installing an email monitoring software system is simply peace of mind, especially for employers with a dispersed or remote staff.
“I only check the reports on an as-needed basis,” O’Keefe says.
3. If You are the Subject of a Complaint or Issue
Remember, if you’re using company equipment, networks and email accounts for personal use, then any information on those systems is fair game for review. This is especially sticky if you use your personal smartphone, laptops or tablets.
Employees who “download personal banking apps, investment apps and other apps that hold very confidential data” should be wary of vulnerability to folks in the company or even telecom providers, Armour says.
And employers, like Armour, will not hesitate to check back into your archives if there’s an outstanding issue with you, like:
- Claims of wrongful termination.
- Customer complaints concerning inappropriate behavior.
- At the request of outside organizations, police or SEC etc.
- In response to other companies who have claimed one of our employees had sent inappropriate materials to employees of their company.
Privacy law as it pertains to email and work is still evolving – sometimes the court rules in favor of employers and other times employees prevail. Your best is to keep your personal email off of company equipment and off of the company grid.