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Is It Legal for Your Boss to Read Your Email?

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on May 05, 2013 9:39 AM

Bosses know that many employees aren't just working on the job, they're also writing personal email. The employer trump card? Monitor employee email activity. But is it legal for your boss to read your email?

Generally, you don't have privacy rights in your emails at work. If you're on your employer's computer system, your employer can monitor your communications, as long as they have a valid reason for doing it.

So what reasons are considered valid?

Purposes for Snooping

If there's no rhyme or reason to it, reading employee email messages may violate federal wiretapping laws, which allow employers to monitor employee e-mail, either:

  • With their consent, or
  • In the ordinary course of business, if the employer has a legitimate business purpose.

Some legitimate business reasons can include responding to a colleague's harassment complaint, investigating a data leak, checking the quality of the computer system, or responding to a government request for documents.

Many employers now have email systems that copy all email messages to check for productivity, illegal use, and other issues.

And note that most employers don't monitor your emails just to cramp your Groupon addiction. Screening company emails can help prevent potential liability for a company.

For example, when you use your company email account to email any outside party, whatever you say could potentially be construed as being endorsed by your company. This could be a humiliating legal nightmare for your employer, especially if your comments include discriminatory or offensive material.

What Employees Can Do

You want your cubicle to be your safe space, and no one likes the idea of working for a "Big Brother" who's always watching. That's why most workplaces have office email policies in place that typically describe:

  • Situations in which your work email is considered "private,"
  • What's considered an unacceptable use of your company email and/or computer systems,
  • Who can look at your email, and
  • When exactly your email can be read.

If your workplace doesn't have such a policy, or if you've never seen it, ask your boss or your human resources manager about it.

Also use the common sense your mama gave you. If she'd be wagging her finger if she saw what you were writing, don't do it at work -- or maybe ever. An email with one -- or 10, maybe -- adorable puppy pics is fine. Racist rants, not so much.

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