Most people assume their emails at work are private. Those people are wrong. There are very few laws that protect you from email snooping at work, and most are pretty worthless and weak. That means you should assume your employer is monitoring your email and act accordingly.
If you get funny emails that are in bad taste, don't forward them. You might be accused of sexual (or racial) harassment. Don't write your lawyer on your work email. And for heaven's sake, don't send love notes to co-workers.
My rule of thumb is this: If you don't want it on the front page of the company newsletter, don't email it at work.
There Ought to Be a Law
Yep, there ought to be. And there is, sort of. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 specifically says your company can't intercept your emails. The problem is, it has exceptions for consent. That means if your company has a policy on email interception or had you sign an agreement, a handbook, or anything else they managed to slip in front of you agreeing that email at work belongs to them, they skate.
The law also says it's legal to monitor your email if the company is the email provider or if they monitor your email in the ordinary course of business, such as for customer service.
In other words, there are so many loopholes that your company probably fits into one. Until the courts say otherwise or Congress tightens this law, it likely doesn't help you.
Those states that have laws requiring two-party consent for interception of electronic communications might offer some help, but right now it looks like the courts aren't seeing it that way. Especially if your company had you sign away your rights.
Other Protections You Might Have (but Probably Don't)
Some states have a tort called "intrusion on seclusion" or "invasion of privacy." There are some protections against highly offensive conduct that's intrusive. The problem is, you probably won't be able to prove you had any expectation of privacy in your emails at work.
If you communicate with your lawyer from work, some states are saying that those emails are protected by boss reads the emails that you sent to your lawyer, they know what you're up to.-client privilege. Some are not. Even if it's inadmissible in court, once your
Use Your Brain Before You Hit 'Send'
Think about every email you send or open. Don't hit "reply all" as a habit. Hit "reply." Before you send something, think about how your boss will react when she reads it. Think about how HR and the company lawyer will view it. Try to only do business on your work email and keep that personal stuff to yourself.
Once you report sexual harassment, discrimination or illegal activity, be extra careful. I've seen employees fired after the employer searched through old emails to look for inappropriate ones that weren't deleted or had been forwarded to the employee. If you get something actually pornographic at work, you probably need to report it, especially if it arrives after you rock the boat.
If you open something from a friend without knowing its contents and it contains pornography or something inappropriate, you can be fired for having it, so think before you click. Tell friends and family to save it for home. You're better off having a private email address for your personal stuff and not accessing it at work. That includes checking it on a company-owned cell phone.
If you use a little common sense, your work email is an excellent tool. But if you don't think before you send, it may be just the tool your boss needs to fire you.