Email may feel like a private, one-to-one conversation safe from prying eyes. However, the truth is, email is about as confidential as telling a secret to a gossipy friend. Especially when emails are sent at work, management can legally monitor it. Bottom line—it’s important to understand what privacy expectations to have when sending emails at work.
Email at work for employees
It is standard practice that when you begin a new job, you will be asked to sign and acknowledge a formal employer email policy. This policy will most likely state that because the computer systems are work property, your emails may be monitored and you have no reasonable expectation of privacy. Additionally, unlike law enforcement, employers do not have very many obstacles preventing them from looking at your emails, especially if a formal contract was signed by the employee. Even without an agreement in place, courts have rarely found that the employee had a reasonable expectation of privacy because emails are considered part of the general office environment.
Email at work for employers
Employers have a host of reasons to monitor emails, the biggest being liability and self-protection for the company. Workplace harassment, discrimination and fraud lawsuits are prevalent in all work space. The best way to protect your business from legal trouble is monitoring and preventing harassment in the first place. What an employee says in an email can be saved for years and can be very beneficial for anyone trying to sue a company. Legality aside, the reality of the situation is that many employers for the sake of self-interest routinely monitor all emails that their employees send and receive. There are various ways this is done, for example:
- ￼Some email systems automatically copy all messages that pass through them
- Some create backup copies of new messages as they arrive
- Some employers who use “keylogger” software might even have copies of draft email messages that you never sent
How to keep your email private at work
First and foremost, it’s important to treat the topic of emails and privacy at work serious or there could be adverse consequences. For example, in 2007, a survey by the American Management Association found that 28% of employers had fired employees over “email misuse”. The most common kinds of misuse: violation of company policies, inappropriate language, excessive personal use, or breaking confidentiality. So how can you avoid problems with workplace email? Strictly limit your communications with family and friends. Always remember too that even after you’ve deleted your emails, they will be available from other sources. The best advice is to treat every email as though it were open to the public to read for years to come.