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Work Email: Balancing Privacy and the Right to Speak

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on March 27, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

From the Sony hack to Hilary Clinton, work email has been all over the news lately. This may leave many employers wondering how closely they can or should monitor their employees' emails.

In some cases, federal law limits how much an employer can monitor electronic correspondence and protects certain kinds of speech in work emails. Employers need to have a plan in place (and make sure its legal) to keep this workplace convenience from becoming an office catastrophe.

The Limits of Surveillance

First and foremost, employers should know the law regarding email inspection. The Federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act provides some protection for work emails, and some states have more stringent statutory controls.

Additionally, the National Labor Relations Board recently ruled that employers can't bar employees from discussing work conditions over work email or bar them from using work email for union activity. So before you start monitoring employees, you should be aware of their rights and the regulations on email review.

The Privacy Policy

Other than those few restrictions, employers generally have a lot of leeway when it comes to monitoring and viewing employee email. For the most part, an employee's privacy rights are limited at work, especially when using company equipment (i.e., computers and servers) and software (i.e., email programs).

That said, it's generally good practice to have a privacy policy in place and make sure that all employees are aware of the specific rules and requirements. This will place employees on notice about any monitoring and give them the comfort that any email inspection will be business related and not abusive, invasive, or retaliatory. (After all, satisfied employees may not require as much supervision.)

Setting up and carrying out a company email monitoring policy can be tricky. You may want to consult with an experienced employment law attorney to assist your business.

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