• United States

Employee e-mail is not private

Jan 27, 20063 mins
Network Security

Last May, I wrote a column in which I said that employers not only have the right to screen employees’ e-mails, but they almost have an obligation to do so.  I wrote:  “Reviews of messages in a company-provided e-mail system can reveal misuse of company resources, theft of intellectual property or other concerns. What’s more, the contents of e-mail messages can be subpoenaed in the event of a lawsuit, so the business owner or executive team should know what’s going through company systems.”

Little did I know how close to home I was when I wrote those words.

Last summer and into the fall, my company had an issue with an employee.  The company owner began to question this employee’s work habits.  The owner took a peek into his e-mail and found a few things to be concerned about, including the excessive use of company e-mail to circulate dirty jokes inside and outside the company and inappropriate discussions with other employees (myself included) as well as clients.  This prompted the owner to look a little further to see what the employee had been storing on his PC and the network.  What she found made her jaw drop.  We won’t go into the nasty details, but suffice it to say that the Supreme Court justices would “know it when they see it.”

Some days, the employee spent a large chunk of his time downloading songs, movies, software and cracker codes.  We could look at the activity on his hard disk and see the record of how his time was spent.  Most troubling of all is that all of this “non-work” was done on company time – essentially robbing the company.  Needless to say, this type of activity wasn’t in the employee’s job description, so he was terminated. 

Adding insult to injury, the company had to submit his e-mails and disk contents to the state of Texas as evidence in a Texas Workforce Commission hearing over unemployment compensation.  Now everything is an open record.

At a time when emotions are running high over privacy rights and government access to digital materials, I think it’s good to remind employees that they have few privacy rights when it comes to the workplace and company-owned resources like networks and e-mail systems.  I learned my lesson, too, as my own e-mail – some of which I’m not proud of — was revealed and scrutinized during the crackdown at my company.  My e-mail might not be squeaky clean now, but at least it won’t make a sailor blush.

What do you think?  Should employers screen their employees’ e-mail messages?  Do employees have the right to expect privacy when using corporate e-mail systems?  Do you have an experience to share?