Do Employers Have the Right to Look at Your Email and IMs?


The idea of in the office is to give employees a communication portal to their customers and other employees. Corporate is an advantage that helps everyone stay in touch. There are still some companies that do not give all their employees addresses. Some of them don’t need it.

A Federal Appeals court in California ruled that businesses that contract an outside source cannot just ask to see the records of an employee, unless the employee signed a waiver. Therefore if you don’t sign something, they can’t look at it without your permission, although they pay for it. Is that really fair?

Most places I have worked at had email in-house. Some places have blocked outside email addresses or text messaging. The main reason why is because it can introduce Malware into the infrastructure. It’s true – one company I worked for that installed that saw a dramatic drop in malware attacks.

Still, some companies either can’t afford or do not want to worry about administering an email or solution. Therefore they call on another company to take care of their communications. If you are a small, ten person company, then a smaller solution usually is the best answer. For the company, it’s worthwhile because they have several small companies in their system and can apply and duplicate across the board.

I have always made a distinction that corporate email is for business need. I don’t email too many people on my company email simply because I might not be there tomorrow. Where would that leave those you gave the email to? I have many email accounts I can give them, and in all reality I don’t really need to check them during business hours – although it would be nice to do so.

I also believe that companies have a right to collect and review email that gets sent and received from me. I have nothing to hide. All they will get from my boxes is business email.

This ruling is something that I am actually for and against at the same time. First, we’ll go with the against. Simply put, it’s the corporations’ email. They have a right to it just as much as I do. If I don’t realize what I am doing is wrong, then I should be reprimanded. Corporations shouldn’t need to have to go through legal red tape for something like this – especially if there is a client on the line.

Now for the “For”. As an email administrator I have been on many “Witch hunts”. Sitting in an office with a Manager on one side and a Human Resources director on the other going through an email box to find questionable material. Makes you wonder if they ever went through my mail.

Of course, this ruling is for email that is controlled by another company. For this, I am for it because you never know who is going to get fired and who is not going to call the other company in time to cancel that persons’ account. One last phone call by that fired manager and he’s got a client contact list through one message.

The judges use the Fourth Amendment as one reasoning. It does provides protection of electronic communications, but this is not a clear cut case. Once again, the email use – and IM’s too – are purchased by the company to be used by the employee. If this was a case where the employee had to pay for it, then this might be more of an issue for the 4th amendment.

Another job, we had an employee downsized. He had a laptop, but with a previous IT, these people were asked to pay for half of their equipment if they wanted laptops. He consulted a lawyer and basically told the corporation that the laptop is his. He took the machine and all the data on it – which included the customer client list, and a list of names that were not customers, but were vital in keeping those customers around. An example would be a sub-contractor.

This may come into a sticky situation if the regulations have to come into play. Basically put if any issue is brought forward to a judge and the company cannot provide proper documentation (ie e-mail) to argue their case, then the company will get fined for it. If you’re a small “Mom and Pop” organization, then this may not be an issue. However if you are either in a large corporation or in a job where situations can become volatile, then this law becomes more of your friend than foe.

Company email is company email. Educating the employees is probably the best way to make everyone understand that fact. Of course to avoid this factor altogether, the employer should just make the employee sign a waiver so they can go into their email at any time. After all, what is the employee going to do? Say No – Even if it means not being able to do their job?

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