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Is It Legal to Read Employees' Email?

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

It's not uncommon for for employees to check Facebook multi-task while working. Employers have tried a variety of methods to keep their ants focused on work, but it's hard to compete with cute puppy pics. One tactic is for employers to to monitor employee emails.

But is it legal to read employees' email messages?

Generally, employees have no privacy rights in their emails at work. If the computer system belongs to the employer, then the employer is generally allowed to monitor their employees' communications, as long as they have a valid reason for it.

Reasons for Checking Employee Email

If there's no good reason for it, reading employee emails may violate federal wiretapping laws. Those laws allow employers to monitor employee email only with their consent or in the ordinary course of business, if the employer has a legitimate business purpose.

Some examples of legitimate purposes 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. But beyond measuring productivity, screening company emails can also help prevent potential liability.

For example, when employees use their work email to communicate with an outside party, the worker's comments may be construed as having the company's endorsement. This could be an embarrassing legal nightmare if the employee's comments include discriminatory or offensive material.

How Not to Seem Like a Snoop

On the flip side, no employee likes the idea of working for a "Big Brother" who's always watching. To avoid looking like an evil business owner who doesn't trust his employees, being up-front and clearing the air is key.

Take the guesswork out for your employees with a written office email policy. Let them gingerly read it over and acknowledge that they understand it.

The policy should make the following painfully clear:

  1. When employees can consider their work e-mail to be "private";
  2. When employee emails aren't private, with a list of unacceptable uses;
  3. Who can review employees' e-mail; and
  4. When employees' email messages can be read (spell out the circumstances).

Also remember that a little common sense goes a long way. Tell employees to write emails as if their mothers were watching over their shoulders. An email with one -- or 10, maybe -- adorable puppy pics is fine. Racist rants, not so much.

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