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Employee use of work e-mail for personal business

Updated on September 10, 2014

There have been quite a few attempts to regulate the Internet, but it is virtually impossible to do. E-mail is the most sacred cow of all, just as the United States mail is protected. Privacy is a given right in this country – or so it would seem.

Internet service providers (ISPs) have stepped in where a government cannot. The United States Postal Service requires licenses for bulk mailing, but does not control what is actually mailed. “Junk mail” still fills our mailboxes. Most ISPs will block a member who is obviously sending out junk mail, called “spam” in the electronic world. But again, content is sacrosanct.

Corporations, on the other hand, have the right to read, censor and block content. This right is written into contracts and handbooks. There are a lot of reasons for this. The right starts with the fact that the computers, telephones, e-mail and mail room are the property of the corporation, not the employee, so the company has the right to regulate how their resources are being used.

Corporations are understanding of the fact that employees cannot always restrict their personal lives to after-work hours. Phone calls to vendors and businesses have to be handled during the same business hours that the employee is working. And some e-mail also has to be handled during working hours. While it is understood that not all personal business can be handled during the lunch hour, a company is even more concerned that overuse can cut into productivity. To avoid frivolous use of the resources, companies impose restraints, such as blocking certain Internet sites, and deleting incoming e-mail with specified words in the subject line such as “joke”, “funny” and “sex”.

Some companies use a similar filtering system for outgoing e-mail, to prevent the employee from sending trivial personal mail via the company’s service. The load on mail servers is heavy as it is and unnecessary e-mail might overload the servers.

But corporations have business reasons for watching employee mail as well. Many companies will not allow an employee to forward company mail to personal mailboxes nor allow employees to access company mail except on company computers. This is because a great deal of a company’s confidential business goes through e-mail, and security of that information can only be reached by controlling what comes in and goes out. This is the primary reason that companies reserve the right to not only monitor the subjects of e-mail, but also to monitor the content of that e-mail.

illustrations courtesy of Microsoft clip art

A company will start monitoring an employee’s e-mail if:

  • the company suspects the employee of leaking confidential information

  • the employee appears “disgruntled” and may be undermining the company or fellow employees

  • the company is looking for legitimate evidence in order to fire the employee

  • the employee appears to know a firing is about to occur

  • the employee has “given notice” of resignation or appears to be looking for work elsewhere.

Since companies are well-versed in monitoring methods which are transparent to the employee, and since the employee doesn’t know if she or he is under suspicion, deserved or not, it is wise to limit use of company resources, especially e-mail. Using one’s common sense when sending e-mail still leaves room for getting necessary personal business taken care of, while staying productive and discouraging family and friends from sending unnecessary e-mail, will only evidence a good employee worth keeping.

© 2014 Bonnie-Jean Rohner

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