A multitude of now common electronic devices, such as email, have made workplace communications faster and more efficient than even ten years ago. Unfortunately, however, the law has not kept pace with this technology, and as a result, a countless number of legal questions have arisen, not the least of which concern the issue of privacy.
What are employees’ privacy rights when using the office email system for personal or non-work-related use, such as communicating with friends or, even worse, harassing their colleagues—sexually or otherwise—or conveying company secrets? Do employees have a legitimate concern about the improper disclosure of personal information? What are employers’ rights with regard to preventing such abuses of their equipment and time?
Employees who use their employer’s email system—especially for other than work-related purposes—do so at their own risk. Currently, statutory and common both law seem to favor the business interests of employers over the privacy rights of employees. Although an employee might be able to assert a privacy claim against the employer in the absence of a clearly defined email policy, an employer will undoubtedly rely on federal and/or state statutory language to assert a privilege to monitor employee emails.
Until the vague language of the various statutes is clarified, or unless non-work-related use of the computer system is expressly permitted by employers, employees should confine their non-work-related emails to their own home computers.
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