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Work Email and Privacy: Rules of the Road and Tips

By Minara El-Rahman on November 23, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Most workers know they need to be careful because their bosses could be watching what they are writing on those personal emails that they send out from the office. Though a recent Wall Street Journal article details how companies are facing some increased difficulty from courts over unannounced monitoring of employee's private communications, employees should still assume that their employer can and likely is keeping tabs on what happens through their work computer.

According to the Wall Street Journal, a 2009 study done by the Ponemon Institute showed that 52% of the workers surveyed admitted that they access personal email at work. This statistic shows how unaware workers are about company access to computers.

Did you know that a company can access personal email accounts if they are used on workplace computers? Employers can access all kinds of data that are stored on company issued computers and smart phones.

The Wall Street Journal reports: "Employees often assume their communications on personal email accounts should stay private even if they are using work-issued computers or smart phones. But in most instances when using a work device, emails of all kinds are captured on a server and can be retrieved by an employer." This type of thinking can lead to trouble because in this case, ignorance is not bliss. It can actually lead you to a lot of trouble with your employer.

The article details two cases with employees challenging their employers having accessed their personal email accounts. While both employees ultimately prevailed over their employers on this issue, one court decision actually detailed how employers need to disseminate information about email privacy expectations. The Journal quoted the opinion as saying that the employer offered "little to suggest that an employee would not retain an expectation of privacy in such [personal] emails." While this may be comforting, why take chances?

Here are some tips to stay safe and private with your own emails:

  • Make sure to read your company's online policy.
  • If you don't remember what your company's online policies are, just ask HR for a copy of the policies. You probably were informed of these policies when you signed all of the paperwork in order to start your employment.
  • If you're tempted to check personal emails at work...DON'T! You are better off checking your personal accounts at home.
  • Don't ever use a personal email account for work related information. It is always better to use the work email account you were given.
  • Always remember that even if courts are softening their stance on email's regarding personal email accounts, not work issued email ones.

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